Effective advocacy is largely about building and maintaining relationships. It is about harnessing the power of a network you create to take positions that advance your organization’s mission.
To be a successful advocate, you don’t have to be a well-connected insider, or an expert on how to make laws. Anyone can be an effective advocate. You just need passion for what you’re advocating for – and then you need to leverage that passion to build a network and a well-researched, factually compelling case for change.
Successful advocacy campaigns all share the same basic framework:
- Choose the message
- Publicize the message
- Relentlessly repeat the message in a kind and respectful way
Clearly Define Your Message
Decide exactly what you are looking to change (or keep the same). Clearly define and articulate that goal for yourself and your organization so you can clearly communicate it to and for others.
Trust is Your Currency
Like everywhere else, relationships are everything in the legislature. Trust is currency, so be careful of what you say and ensure that everything is factual and correct. If you find out that it is not, make sure you correct the mistake quickly. You are asking people to get to know your organization and care about the work you do so much so that they are willing to put their names to changing a law because you have asked them to. Take that responsibility seriously and be a conscientious partner. If you do not know the answer to a question, do not guess; tell whoever asked that you will look into it and find out.
You will build trust by researching and becoming deeply informed about the issue you are advocating about. You do not want to compromise that trust by saying or distributing something factually inaccurate or by making stuff up.
Be extremely kind to staff. Your meetings with legislative aides and other staff are just as important as your meetings with lawmakers themselves. Staffers will often look young because they are, and it is common for senior staffers to be in their twenties, but age does not dictate experience or intelligence. Understand that careers in government are extremely accessible to young people and that the staffers in front of you may be young but they have earned the trust of their legislators, and they will be the ones making your case to their bosses, so treat them with respect. Legislators hear from hundreds of people a day on dozens of issues. Their attention is pulled in a million directions at once, and it is the staff member who will be taking notes, doing research, and likely reminding the legislative member of their impressions and commitments right before the vote. Legislative staffers can be important allies for your cause. Some of the staffers may have been around longer than the legislators and can help you navigate the process and position your advocacy campaign for success. It is also critical that you stay respectful of everyone throughout your advocacy campaign. Word will get around if you are not kind or if you are yelling or belligerent. It never pays to be rude, threatening, pushy, or demanding.
Gratitude is Important
Remember, legislators and their staff generally hear from people when something is wrong. They receive a lot of respect in their positions but are the subject of a lot of vitriol too. Take every possible opportunity to say thanks. Attend committee votes and thank those who vote in favor of your policy change and offer to meet with those who do not. Send thank you notes after meetings and share good news about the work you are doing as well as the tough stories that you would like to change.
ARE GIFTS TO LEGISLATORS OKAY?
Gifts to Pennsylvania legislators, given for the purpose of influencing their decisions, are not okay unless they are de minimis (i.e., of no monetary value). According to Pennsylvania’s Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, 65 Pa. C.S. §1101 et seq. (commonly referred to as the “Ethics Act”), members of the Pennsylvania legislature may accept gifts if the gifts have no monetary value – or if there is no understanding (on the part of the giver and receiver) that the gift will influence the decisionmaker. Any gifts that are in the aggregate $250 or more must be disclosed. For more details about these ethics rules, see the State Ethics Commission website, which provides the text of the Ethics Acts, its accompanying regulations, FAQs, and other helpful guidance, including this brochure (revised June 2018) issued by the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, an independent state agency charged with the responsibility of enforcing the Ethics Act. A similar code of conduct applies to the Governor’s office, but it is stricter when it comes to the acceptance of anything of value in connection with lobbying efforts. See the Governor’s Code of Conduct, Part I, Section 3 (relating to gifts and favors), which was amended by Executive Order 2023-04.
Want a more mission-focused way to thank your legislator or elected official? Bring a sign and ask your supportive legislators and elected officials to take and post a picture or make and post a video!
Understand the Basics about Lobbying Laws
In addition to ethics rules about giving gifts to elected officials (discussed above), when it comes to lobbying compliance, two different types of laws apply: 1) there’s a federal tax law restriction on the amount of lobbying 501(c)(3) public charities can do; and 2) there are lobbying registration and reporting laws at the federal and state (and sometimes also local) levels.
Unlike the federal tax law limitations, the registration and reporting laws do not impose limitations on lobbying; instead, they simply require disclosure of certain details such as the amount of lobbying. Failure to comply with the registration and reporting laws does not negatively impact an organization’s 501(c)(3) status.
- Federal tax law limitations – for most, they are not so limiting! In Topic #10 below, we cover the federal tax laws that limit how much 501(c)(3) public charities can lobby. Most 501(c)(3) public charities are generally nowhere near exceeding the lobbying limits, but it makes sense to think ahead about whether yours will want to make an “h” election. Skip ahead to Topic #10 for more on how to best position your organization for compliance given the types of lobbying it intends to do.
- Know when to Register and Report! Unlike the federal tax rules (discussed in Topic #10 below), lobbying disclosure laws – applicable at the federal, state, and local level – do not limit the amount of lobbying organizations can do. Instead, these laws simply require that organizations register and report their lobbying expenses and other information. Typically, registration and reporting requirements are triggered by the amounts that organizations spend on lobbying.
- If your nonprofit engages in lobbying at the federal level (by lobbying federal officials to change a federal law), it is going to need to comply with the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act. For a helpful summary of that law, and its registration and reporting requirements, see Bolder Advocacy’s resource Understanding the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
- If your nonprofit engages in lobbying in Pennsylvania (by lobbying officials in the Commonwealth to change a Pennsylvania law), it will have to comply with Pennsylvania’s Lobbying Disclosure Act, and it may have to register and file reports with the Pennsylvania Department of State’s Bureau of Campaign Finance & Lobbying Disclosure depending on how much your organization spends on lobbying each quarter. See below for more details.
- Local (e.g., city or county) lobbying registration rules may also apply. Bolder Advocacy notes that regulation in local jurisdictions is on the rise, as there is an ongoing movement to enact additional local county- and municipal-level lobbying regulations. In Pennsylvania, the City of Pittsburgh and the City of Philadelphia each have their own lobbying laws (see below). It’s best to check your local jurisdiction and to become familiar with any applicable rules before you embark on a lobbying campaign – that way, you will know when to register and what records to keep so that you can satisfy any reporting requirements.
City of Philadelphia Lobbying Laws: For more information about the City of Philadelphia’s lobbying laws, check out the Board of Ethics webpage, Chapter 20-1200 of the City Code, and its corresponding Regulation 9
City of Pittsburgh Lobbying Laws: For more information about the City of Pittsburgh’s lobbying laws, check out the Code of Ordinances, Chapter 161.37 (Lobbyist Registration). See also Open Book Pittsburgh for registration forms and FAQs.
Know What Records to Keep!
Compliance with all these laws requires a solid recordkeeping and expense tracking system. For guidance on keeping these records — “the least appreciated, most important thing” — see the Alliance for Justice publication “Keeping Track: A Guide to Recordkeeping for Advocacy Charities,” by John Pomeranz, available on Bolder Advocacy’s resource library. See also Bolder Advocacy’s sample time sheets. Make sure when designing your time sheets to capture the information you will need to track not only for IRS reporting purposes but to meet the other federal and state and local registration and reporting requirements.
PENNSYLVANIA REPORTING REQUIREMENTS:
Lobbying Registration Threshold: A nonprofit organization that engages in lobbying on its own behalf in Pennsylvania is considered a “principal” under Pennsylvania’s Lobbying Disclosure Act, 65 Pa. C.S. §13A03 (definition section); and under Section 13A04(a) of this Act, it must register with the Pennsylvania Department of State’s Bureau of Campaign Finance & Lobbying Disclosure if its total expenses for lobbying exceed $3,000 in a reporting period (i.e., in a calendar quarter), unless it meets another exemption. A complete list of the exemptions can be found in Pennsylvania’s Lobbying Disclosure Act, 65 Pa. C.S. §13A06 (exemptions from registration and reporting).
In a reporting period in which total lobbying expenses of a principal are $3,000 or less, any organization that is registered must file a statement to that effect. See 65 Pa. C.S. §13A05(d). (Note, although the statute does not reflect it, these threshold amounts were increased up from $2,500 on January 1, 2017 under the authority of Act 134 and its regulations; see the notice of the increased threshold on the Pennsylvania Department of State website).
Registration Requirements: Under Pennsylvania’s Lobbying Disclosure Act, 65 Pa. C.S. §13A04 (registration section), all lobbyists, lobbying firms, and principals (see definitions of these terms in Section 13A03 of the Act) must register with the Pennsylvania Department of State within 10 days of acting in any capacity as a lobbyist, lobbying firm, or principal unless an exemption applies (e.g., if an organization’s total lobbying expenses are $3,000 or less in a reporting period). A list of the exemptions is in Section 13A06 of the Act. The registration fee is $300. Registration forms are now required to be submitted electronically online using the Department of State’s Lobbying Account Services. Renewal of registrations is required every two years (i.e., biennial), and registrations may be terminated at any time.
Reporting: If reporting is required, quarterly expense reports must be filed electronically with the Department of State no later than 30 days after the last day of the quarter. See below for the due dates. For more information and to register or file reports, visit the Pennsylvania Department of State’s Lobbying Disclosure website (click on the ‘Lobbying Account Services’ link in the right sidebar to make filings).
Quarterly Expense Report Due Dates:
1st Quarter January 1-March 31
Report Due April 30th
2nd Quarter April 1-June 30
Report Due July 30th
3rd Quarter July 1-September 30
Report Due October 30th
4th Quarter October 1-December 31
Report Due January 30th
Volunteers, Employees, and Exemptions: If your organization has staff and volunteers lobbying on its behalf, these individual volunteers may be lobbyists as that term is defined under the Act (see Section 13A03) but they may not have to register separately as such (even if your organization is reimbursing their expenses). An individual who engages in lobbying on behalf of their employer (if their lobbying activities are less than 20 hours during any reporting period) is not required to separately register and report. See Section 13A06(5) of the Act. Any individual who does not receive compensation or benefits and is not reimbursed for their expenses for lobbying is also not required to register. See Section 13A06(3) of the Act. Individuals are also exempt from registration if any economic consideration they receive, including compensation, benefits, and reimbursement of expenses, from all the organizations they lobby for does not exceed $3,000 in the aggregate during any reporting period. See Section 13A06(4) of the Act. Your organization may still need to list these individuals (and amounts paid to them) as lobbyists on its expense reports. See Section 13A05(b)(1) of the Act.
For an additional summary on Pennsylvania’s lobbying law, see the Pennsylvania-specific practical guide to lobbying published by Bolder Advocacy in partnership with the Democracy Capacity Project. It calls out additional key points in Pennsylvania’s law and explains how Pennsylvania’s definition of lobbying differs from the federal tax rules that limit lobbying (discussed in Pennsylvania’s Lobbying Disclosure Act), and it covers other helpful points with its FAQs. Bolder Advocacy also has a free Technical Assistance Hotline and additional resources available in the robust resource library on its website, www.bolderadvocacy.org.
If you are lobbying in Pennsylvania, be sure to review the Pennsylvania’s Lobbying Disclosure Act itself and confer with legal counsel if you have any questions about compliance with the Act. Make sure to understand how its provisions apply to your nonprofit and the people advocating on your organization’s behalf for the issues you care about.