Can land trusts do advocacy?
Yes! Land trusts can advocate for policies that support conservation — and it’s one of our most important jobs. Think about it. Our elected representatives make decisions about conservation that can open huge opportunities — or shut them down. So, land trusts need to be just as good at building relationships with our elected officials as we are at building relationships with major donors and landowners.
People in land trusts often question whether it’s legal to get involved in politics. The answer is YES, you can advocate on issues, legislation, and ballot measures. But you do need to follow some relatively simple rules. Here’s an overview of the law.
You can advocate for issues, but not candidates.
It’s important to keep in mind that, as a tax-exempt nonprofit, you cannot endorse or oppose a candidate for office! During election years, be careful to avoid any appearance that you are taking sides in a campaign for office. A violation could result in serious consequences, like losing your tax-exempt status and your ability to receive tax-deductible donations.
As a land trust, you can advocate to build political support for your issues, and you can advocate on legislation and ballot measures.
Some political activities are subject to spending limits.
The law sets limits for how much nonprofits can spend on lobbying — but for most land trusts, the law allows as much lobbying as you would ever want to do.
For starters, if you’re going to spend more than an “insubstantial” amount of your budget on lobbying, you need to fill out Form 5768 and send it to the IRS. It’s a simple form that takes only a few minutes to complete.
Once you’ve filed with the IRS, there’s a sliding scale for how much you can spend on lobbying. The law allows you to spend up to 20% of your first $500,000 on lobbying activities. After that, the percentage you can spend on lobbying decreases as your budget increases above $500,000. There’s a cap for total lobbying by a 501(c)3 nonprofit, set at $1 million per year.
Know what counts toward the spending limit.
Keep in mind that many activities don’t count toward the spending limit for lobbying. What does count toward is money that you spend with the intention of influencing specific legislation or ballot initiatives. This includes:
- Staff time and expenses used to communicate directly with lawmakers about legislation
- Outreach to the public, if you’re asking them to contact lawmakers or vote a certain way on ballot initiatives
Activities that do not count include:
- Volunteer time
- Campaigns focused on regulatory decisions by government agencies
- Grant proposals submitted to a government agency
- Communication with your members about legislation, unless you urge them to contact lawmakers
- Communication with lawmakers or the public about issues, unless you aim to influence specific legislation or ballot initiatives
You can find in-depth resources on the rules for nonprofit lobbying here.