Lobbying, broadly defined, is any set of activities that influence decisions by government officials. And as directed by federal tax law, foundation and government grants are not supposed to fund lobbying. While many private foundations gladly fund "advocacy" (more on that below), for government agencies, funding policy development work is a definite no-no.
With that in mind, it is surprising to read The Hill's account of the Department of Health and Human Services' possible missteps in leading grantees down the road of lobbying.
A key takeaway from this story is that grant application guidelines aren't always infalliable.
In this case, according to the article, the federal grant application itself said that funds couldn't be used for "grassroots lobbying," but a Frequently Asked Questions document included with the application suggested that grantees could use federal funds to engage in "legislative, regulatory and educational arenas" to reduce tobacco use and obesity at the community level.
The bottom line: no matter what the guidelines say, beware using any government funds to support your nonprofit's policy work.
But for foundation grants, you may have more leeway.
For example, The Joyce Foundation is one of many high-profile foundations that support nonprofits working to impact policy at all levels of government.
Here's their explanation of how potential grantees interested in policy change can request funding:
"The Foundation may support organizations engaged in public policy advocacy by either providing general operating support or by funding educational advocacy such as nonpartisan research, technical assistance, or examinations of broad social issues."
Do you want to learn more about the types of advocacy that can be funded by private foundations?
- Independent Sector compiled its wealth of resources about nonprofit advocacy on this section of their website.