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Can Land Trusts Lobby?

Yes, your land trust can lobby, and there are many good reasons to do so!  Your land trust (and any 501(c)(3) nonprofit) can lobby the city council, the state government, and even the Congress, if you follow some relatively simple rules.

The IRS says you can!  You can read their letter on lobbying by 501(c)(3) charities.

For a brief summary of nonprofit lobbying rules, see You? Lobby? (134KB, PDF) or review the many other resources from the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest.

If your organization has a stake in increasing tax incentives or funding for conservation, you should lobby!  Hundreds of land trusts, from The Nature Conservancy to all-volunteer organizations operating in a single township, have lobbied their state and federal legislators to help them conserve more land.

What do you have to do?

  1. Decide what is in your land trust's best interest!  You may decide, like many land trusts, to lobby only where there is a clear benefit to your organizational goals, and to do so in a pro-active, non-confrontational way.  Asking your legislators for help is in many ways no different from asking any other donor for help. Other organizations have told us that taking controversial stances helps to raise their profile and drives donations, but that path isn't for everyone.  Our Advocacy Seminar Workbook has advice and templates for developing an advocacy policy and a policy committee.
  2. Not all work you do with government is lobbying! The IRS doesn’t regulate work done by volunteers (including your board, except to the degree your budget covers their expenses). Communication about legislation to your members does not count, unless you urge them to lobby. Work with agencies on a grant proposal or on regulations they are considering is not considered lobbying by the IRS.  Broad discussion of social issues (i.e., sprawl, or protection of open space) that does not address specific legislation is not lobbying.
  3. Land trusts that make lobbying a substantial portion of their budget should elect to come under the rules the Congress passed in 1976 for lobbying by public charities. By filling out IRS Form 5768, you come under these rules, which allow you to spend as much as 20 percent of your budget on lobbying so long as you keep track of and report those expenditures (lobbying expenses and staff time) to the IRS.
  4. 501(c)(3)'s are never allowed to endorse political candidates!  But land trusts can advocate in non-partisan elections, such as ballot referenda.  Many land trusts have played a key role in campaigning for referenda to create new sources of conservation funding at the local and state level.
  5. There is a special limit on funds used to persuade the general public on legislative issues.  Any type of communication used to reach out to the public rather than just to your members, such as newspaper ads, is considered grass-roots lobbying.  You can only spend one quarter of your lobbying limit on grass-roots lobbying.  Communications to your members, and advocacy on referenda, however, do not count as grassroots lobbying, and are not subject to the 25 percent limit.
  6. Keep informed – join Land Trust Alliance Advocates, our e-mail alert network that lets you know what the federal government is doing that may affect your conservation work, and how you can affect it. Also, please don't hesitate to call and ask for advice!  We're eager to help you! Reach us at 202-638-4725 or policy@lta.org.

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Advocates Alerts

July 17: The House just voted 277-130 to pass the charities package! 56 Democrats joined their Republican colleagues to support charitable giving incentives, including the enhanced easement incentive - the second-highest number of defections after the research and development tax credit. Several others spoke on the floor in support of the conservation easement incentive, and other favorable charitable incentives. Thank you to organizations like Ducks Unlimited, CSF and others that reached out to Congressional offices over the last few days or alerted their membership of this important vote. Now, we pivot to the Senate.
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