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Advocating Versus Lobbying | Educating Versus Lobbying | Support or No Support
Numbers Count | What You CAN Legally Do | Resources

What You Can Legally Do

Lobbying is always advocacy.
Advocacy isn’t always lobbying.

—Gear Up for Capitol Hill, ProLiteracy

Legislators represent your views. As adult educators or learners, you have unique knowledge about adult education and literacy in your community; thus, you should share this knowledge with legislators. Five key principles below, courtesy of TAACE and the NCSDAE, with ProLiteracy, will help you understand what you can do as an adult literacy advocate. This does not constitute legal advice. If you are uncertain, always consult your organization’s attorney about lobbying.

Principle 1: Advocating Versus Lobbying

Advocacy:advocating versus lobbying graphic
Includes identifying, embracing, and promoting a cause; any attempt to shape public opinion, and promote the interests of your community.

—The Lobbying and Advocacy Handbook for Nonprofit Organizations

A specific, legally defined activity that involves stating your position on specific legislation to legislators and/or asking them to support your position.

—Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI)

Principle 2: Educating Versus Lobbyingeducating versus lobbying graphic

If you are communicating the issues by informing legislators of your program successes, along with the need and demand for services, then you are educating your legislators on the issues.

If you are combining that information with a request for action on specific legislation, whether for legislative language or funding, (the issues plus the Ask), then you are lobbying.

For example, a legislator asks what you want. Here are two statements in response on what the legislator can do to help. One is educating, one is lobbying:

“If we had $2 million additional funds, we could serve more adults who will be more productive citizens and contribute more to the economy.”

“Will you vote for an increase in $2 million in appropriations for adult education?”

If your role prohibits lobbying, you can educate your legislator. As an adult literacy advocate, become the expert—the resource person—for your legislator on adult literacy in your community.

No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.
—New York Judge Gideon Tucker

Principle 3: Support or No Support

Legislators make funding decisions for adult education based on what they know about adult education and literacy services. If they do not hear from you, they won’t know whether adult education is even important in their district or state. They may trade adult education funding for something else. The reverse holds true.

Each year, Congress will decide how to spend your tax dollars—with or without your information. As representatives of the people, legislators and their aides would much rather have your information to inform their decisions. Legislative aides are sometimes more important to reach, since they advise the legislator on the issues and make recommendations based on the information they have.

But your legislators cannot represent you or your opinion if they do not know what that is.


Principle 4: Numbers Count!

Threshold Numbers

Legislators get letters and calls—for and against a particular issue. They need to know whether there are significant numbers of constituents who hold one view or another on an issue.


  • Count the number of constituents who share views on an issue.
  • Set a threshold number of responses (calls, faxes, e-mails) that legislative aides must receive before the aide alerts the legislator that an issue needs attention.

The threshold number:

  • Helps a legislator determine which issues are important to their constituents, or which view on an issue is most prominent.
  • Varies from legislator to legislator and issue to issue, based upon the numbers of constituents, and the breadth of the issue’s focus.
  • Is lower for state legislators than federal legislators.

Bottom Line:

  • When we make few contacts with legislators on an issue, our voices may not make a difference.  
  • An anemic or weak response can hurt our cause. It sends the message that adult literacy issues are not important.
  • An increased and ongoing response from adult literacy advocates raises the priority of adult education and literacy with legislators.

Principle 5: What You Can Legally Do

Public Employees
As a US citizen, you can voice your concerns. Just do not lobby using program resources.

  • no program phones or faxes
  • no program computers to e-mail lobbying requests
  • no federal- or state-funded discussion lists
  • no office paper, printers, or stamps
  • no lobbying during paid work time

Do not lobby from work. You should speak as a private citizen, from someplace other than work when you are lobbying. It is unlawful to lobby using public funds.

Do speak from your role when you are educating your legislator about your program. Your experience with adult literacy lends credibility to your report.

For example (excerpted from an adult educator’s letter to a Congressman):

I have been an adult educator at [your program], [your city and state], for twenty years and I have seen the impact adult education and literacy makes on people’s lives in my community. I ask that you increase funding for adult education and literacy, and here is why:

[The adult educator shares her brief, well-argued points here, written on personal stationery and based on her experiences teaching adult education and literacy.]


Your name
Private Citizen
Your town, your state


Lobbying and nonpartisan voter engagement are not only legal for charitable nonprofits, they are essential if you want to achieve significant change.
—Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest

You CAN lobby! However, 501(c)(3) may not engage in “substantial lobbying”. The IRS has never clearly defined this term. You have two options.

1. File for coverage under the 1976 Lobby Law:

  • File IRS Form 5768 (H Form) to elect coverage under the lobbying law
  • Is your budget is less than $500,000?
    • 20% can be spent on direct lobbying
    • 5% can be spent on grassroots lobbying
    • Track and report lobbying expenses separately
    • Preparing for lobbying counts towards the total

2. Elect not to be covered by the 1976 Lobby Law:

If you do not elect coverage under the 1976 Lobby Law, the IRS will apply the “substantial lobbying test” and will determine on a case by case basis how much lobbying is “acceptable” for your organization. This may make you vulnerable in the event of an IRS audit.


IRS Lobby Law Form 5768, Includes Permitted Lobbying Expenses
From the Nonprofit Lobbying Guide, page 2 of this document includes the permitted lobbying expenditures for direct and indirect (grassroots) lobbying.

Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service Letter
Many nonprofits and their funders prefer to hear from the authority itself. The Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, with its attorneys at Caplin & Drysdale, sought and received this IRS letter on questions related to lobbying by publicly supported charitable organizations.

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on Measuring Lobbying Activity
The IRS provides guidance on how to measure lobbying activities.

National Council of State Directors of Adult Education (NCSDAE)
The NCSDAE provides information for public employees and nonprofits on what they can legally do.

Why You Should Elect to Come Under the 501(h) Expenditure Test
The Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest provides additional information on why you should elect to come under the 501(h), information for tax preparers, exclusions from lobbying, and how to estimate whether you are coming close to the permissible limits of lobbying that you are allowed to conduct.

For Further Investigation

Alliance for Justice
Alliance for Justice helps nonprofits influence public policy. The organization has a separate program called the Nonprofit Advocacy Project, which offers free technical assistance over the phone, workshops, easy-to understand legal guides, and other tools and information to organizations that want to lobby.

Learn to Love Lobbying
According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, most nonprofits don’t know how to lobby. Some think that it entails cutting shady deals with sleazy characters; yet lobbying is a right that our democracy guarantees. To make the changes nonprofits want to see in the world, they must lobby. This resource provides basic information about lobbying, including the virtues of lobbying and examples from nonprofits on being political and effective.

Make a Difference for Your Cause: Strategies for Nonprofit Engagement in Legislative Advocacy
Make a Difference for Your Cause resource and discussion guide takes readers through the steps of the CLPI Road Map, provides examples of nonprofits that have successfully used public policy engagement to meet their missions, and presents six questions readers can use to stimulate discussion with others in their organizations. Make a Difference for Your Cause is available for free. Bulk copies are available for purchase. Call 202-387-5048 for more information.

Center for Effective Government
OMB Watch is a nonprofit government watchdog organization in Washington, D.C. They promote open government, accountability, and citizenship participation. Nonprofit advocacy is one of their issues

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