How to Interact (or Not) with the Political Process


By: Eric Joseph Rubio

What is the difference between campaigning, lobbying, and advocating for a certain policy position and on which of them, if any, should a nonprofit arts organization spend time and resources? As always, consult an attorney for legal advice, an auditor for the reporting requirements, and take the following as a starting point to those conversations.


Campaigning, broadly, is an effort to influence voters in elections. This includes messaging for or against a particular candidate for a particular elected office (at the federal, state, county, local, or special district level), as well as messaging for or against a referendum, ballot initiative, or similar item that is being presented directly to the electorate of a given jurisdiction.
This activity is prohibited to entities that have a 501(c)3 designation. There are other types of 501(c) organizations that can (and by their very nature do) campaign, but nonprofit arts organizations that receive charitable donations cannot.


Lobbying, broadly, is an effort to influence policymakers. Like campaigning, this has elements of attempting to influence a vote, but in this case it is influencing the votes of the elected officials already in legislative roles, from city councils to Congress. This can also involve messaging for or against regulations proposed by executive or administrative agencies at any level of government.

This activity is allowed by entities with a 501(c)3 designation, though these organizations must disclose their expenditures for these purposes (on Form 990, Schedule C), and should take caution not to spend an excessive portion of total operating expenses on lobbying. The most common lobbying expense is hiring professional lobbyists to influence legislators and agency staff on your organization’s behalf.

Much lobbying activity doesn’t involve any actual cash expense. If your executive director uses their organizational email account to contact a city council member suggesting changes to zoning policy that might affect operations, that is effectively lobbying, but there’s no expense involved.


Advocacy is simply taking a public-facing position on any topic, regardless of whether the topic is a matter currently before a legislative body or other forum. This can be as broad as a statement of why the arts are important to your local economy. This can also be something specific like a perspective on how the zoning policy will affect your operations and encouraging your patrons to contact their members of the city council about it (if the parking policy were a ballot initiative or referendum, that would be campaigning, but if the patrons themselves are not voting on the policy, it’s not).

Disclaimer: What is a blog post about a legal or financial topic without a disclaimer? This is not legal advice. You should not be getting your legal advice from a blog post. The purpose of this post is to give you things to think about before taking action. Speak to an accountant and/or a lawyer about specifics.

Eric Joseph Rubio
Eric Joseph Rubio
Eric Joseph Rubio is a nonprofit and arts management professional originally from Chicago, and now based in Washington, DC. He has served in staff and leadership roles with churches, schools, and arts organizations in the Chicago, South Florida, and Washington, DC areas. Eric is a proud alumnus of the Wheaton College (IL) Conservatory of Music, and is an occasional freelance writer across a variety of platforms. Follow Eric on Threads and Instagram at @TheRubioRoom, and visit his website
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