Three easy ways nonprofits can engage in powerful democracy work

Conservation Lands Foundation
|September 28, 2022

Elections have significant impacts on the future of our public lands and the policies that govern how they are managed. Many local elections are decided by just a handful of votes, which means each of us can have a significant impact on whether our values are heard at the polls and represented at all levels of government.

There are strict rules when it comes to what nonprofits can and cannot do when it comes to civic engagement work. That’s why we put together this handy Friends Election Guide to provide you with a framework on how to navigate your nonprofit activities through the democratic process.

Below are our top three takeaways from our Election Guide to get you started. Be sure to read through the complete guide for more information and real-world examples.

1. Nonprofits can - and should - participate in civic engagement.

While restricted in some ways, nonprofit organizations can go a long way in advancing civic engagement in their local communities. Many nonprofit organizations - like those in our Friends Grassroots Network - are 501(c)3 nonprofits, which is an IRS designation that marks the organization as tax-deductible. A C3 cannot endorse or work to elect candidates to office, but, they can engage with elected officials and the democratic process!

“There’s no reason that every C3 shouldn’t be registering everyone to vote who comes in their office and all of their activists.” - TJ Ellerbeck
Rural Utah Project Executive Director

From registering people to vote to providing information on how to vote in elections, C3s can go a long way in getting out the vote! Just make sure it’s nonpartisan - meaning you’re not telling folks who to vote for or targeting voters based on party affiliation - and that you’re conducting civic engagement work regularly.

2. Nonprofits can lobby.

From hitting the steps of the Capitol in Washington D.C. to meeting with your local city council members, nonprofits work year-round to influence legislation they either support or oppose. While nonprofits can lobby, C3s must track their time and expenses closely to make sure they do not exceed 20% of their overall activities.

There are two ways to lobby:

  1. Directly urging your membership to contact their representative on an issue.
  2. Grassroots lobbying, which is asking the public to weigh in on an issue.

3. Nonprofits can participate in the election process in a variety of ways.

There are so many ways your nonprofit can help your members, supporters and the public become educated on where candidates stand on your issues. Nonprofits can host candidate forums, invite candidates to fill out a questionnaire, conduct candidate trainings, and so much more.

Of course, C3s nonprofits should be careful as to how they conduct these activities in order to be IRS-compliant so make sure to visit our Elections Guide for more information.

Thank you to Skye Schell, founder of Yellow Tree Strategies and a leading advisor on nonprofit election engagement, who curated this fantastic Elections Guide. Please reach out if you have any questions.

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About Conservation Lands Foundation
We’re the only nonprofit leading a national movement of community-based advocates who care for America’s NATIONAL CONSERVATION LANDS of natural, historical, cultural and recreational significance.