Alliance for Justice

Editor’s Note: This blog post comes from Abby Levine, Legal Director of Advocacy Programs at Alliance for Justice.

Right now at Alliance for Justice headquarters, our staff are getting ready to release a new documentary film and a campaign to mobilize our grassroots activists. We’re looking at how to promote the film on YouTube, how to use Twitter to spread our message, how to organize meetings on Facebook, and how to encourage our members to take action via email. It’s a very different campaign than we would have planned just a few years ago.

AFJ is hardly alone; most nonprofits have embraced online video, blogs, email, and social media. New technology opened new doors, and advocacy organizations now face seemingly endless possibilities and dizzying options for communicating with an ever-expanding audience. The online world offers the promise of quick, efficient, and far-reaching advocacy.

But even as nonprofits see the enormous promise of blogs and social media, the risks are just as obvious. Can an organization lose its tax-exempt status because of a careless Tweet? Can an advocacy group accidentally exceed its lobbying limits because of a comment on a blog?

Unfortunately, there’s little guidance available from official sources such as the FEC and IRS, and what guides exist are often impenetrable and incomprehensible. Many nonprofits don’t have dedicated legal experts on staff to analyze their activities and arcane rules. The nonprofit community needed a current, common-sense guide to the laws and regulations that could provide simple answers to questions like, “Can my 501(c)(3) organization friend a candidate on Facebook?”

So that’s what we set out to provide. AFJ has released a free and simple guide to help the nonprofit community better understand the legal landscape of advocacy in the modern online world: Influencing Public Policy in the Digital Age: The Law of Online Lobbying and Election-related Activity. It translates laws and regulations into approachable and applicable guidance for nonprofits hoping to engage in effective online communication and advocacy.

In our guide and in our workshops and webinars, AFJ helps nonprofits find the answers to some common questions, such as:

  • May a c3 and a c4 share a website?
  • Do the IRS and FEC rules apply to social networking sites?
  • May a 501(c)(3) let a 501(c)4 or a candidate use its email list?
  • May we talk about candidates in tweets, texts, and status updates?

The fact of the matter is that there will always be ambiguity in rules that were written before anyone had even imagined the existence of blogs and social media. Some questions that should have been addressed long ago – like “What are the rules for moderating an email listserv?” – still have received no official answer. Our guide can help nonprofits understand the rules that do exist, and the precedents that can guide us all through uncharted territory.

Tides has spent the last 34 years helping support and guide nonprofits across the country, and we at AFJ are honored to do our part for the Tides community. We hope you’ll find our digital advocacy guide useful, and we’re here to answer any questions you may have about it.

With the release of Influencing Public Policy in the Digital Age, and with our training sessions and technical assistance, we’re hoping to give nonprofits the tools and confidence they need to effectively – and legally – engage in online advocacy. We believe that this is the perfect time for nonprofits to seek answers to these questions, because in the fast-moving and ever-changing political and policy environments, advocacy matters now more than ever.

Throughout the Fall 2011, Alliance for Justice will be hosting a series of webinars about advocacy rules for nonprofit organizations – click here to learn more.

Abby Levine serves as Legal Director of Advocacy Programs at the Alliance for Justice. Prior to joining the Alliance, she was the Public Policy Analyst at the National Council of Nonprofit Associations (NCNA). At NCNA, Abby monitored and analyzed issues affecting the nonprofit sector, such as challenges to nonprofit tax exemptions and advocacy, state budget cuts, government grants streamlining, and corporate governance. Before working at NCNA, Abby was an associate in the tax department at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey in Cleveland, Ohio.

Image adapted from Flickr user orangeacid, used with Creative Commons license.