Lobbying by a 501(c)(3) Organization

In my prior post, I provided an introduction to forming a 501(c)(3) organization. Such organizations must have charitable purposes and can not have a primary purpose of lobbying, or attempting to influence legislation. A 501(c)(3) organization classified as a private foundation is subject to excise taxes on all of its lobbying activities as well as political campaign activities under section 4945 of the Internal Revenue Code.

A 501(c)(3) organization classified as a public charity, however, may engage in some lobbying, but only to a limited extent. If a "substantial part" of a charity's activities includes attempting to influence legislation, it risks losing its 501(c)(3) status or not qualifying at the outset. The "substantial part" test is a facts-and-circumstances test; the IRS considers factors such as time and expenditures devoted to lobbying to determine whether the lobbying is substantial.

Because there is inherent uncertainty in any facts-and-circumstances test, a public charity that intends to engage in some lobbying has the option under 501(h) of the Internal Revenue Code to elect to be subject to a test that is based entirely on expenditures. Making this election is accomplished by filing IRS Form 5768. By so doing, a public charity can engage in lobbying by utilizing between 20% and 5.9% (depending on the organization's size, but in no case exceeding $1,000,000) of its exempt purpose expenditures on lobbying.

While the 501(h) election is not for every public charity (and some public charities such as churches are ineligible to make the election), this election can be a good option for charities that wish to devote a small part of their activities to influencing legislation.