Grassroots organizations often find themselves in something of a Catch-22 when it comes to advancing watershed restoration.

To be eligible for grants, they often must be incorporated as a charitable or educational nonprofit organization under section 501(c)3 of the federal tax code, which makes them exempt from many state and federal taxes.

But that designation also limits their political activity. In general, 501(c)3 organizations cannot advocate on behalf of a particular candidate; publish or distribute statements for or against a candidate; or contribute money or services to a candidate. As a rule of thumb, actions taken near a campaign are more likely to be considered a political activity that those done at other times.

Groups may undertake a broad range of general education activities that relate to political issues, though. Some things experts say groups can do include:

  • Hold a public forum or debate. Everyone must be invited, and it must cover a broad range of issues in unbiased language.
  • Run a petition drive to demonstrate public support and provide elected officials with names (and contact information) of people who support the issue.
  • Provide constituent contact by holding a house party for organization members to meet their legislators. The best time to hold constituent meetings is in the months before the legislative session starts. This gives public officials a way to talk directly with the group’s members about what is important to them.
  • Monitor relevant public activity by attending local government or state legislative meetings. Monitoring public activities also means being available to decision-makers, providing the basic facts and reporting back to your members about legislative action.
  • Lobby within set limits. The Internal Revenue Service has set limits for how much lobbying a 501(c)3 organization can undertake and on the amount of money that can be spent on direct and grassroots lobbying. If a group fills out the proper IRS “lobbying election” form, as much as 20 percent of its budget can be spent on lobbying.
  • Mobilize members by encouraging them to write their representatives and elected officials about their concerns. Newsletters or other communication with members is not considered “grassroots” lobbying even if they are from a “grassroots” organization. (But the IRS does strictly limit how much an organization can spend mobilizing non-members to support legislation and appropriations.)
  • Talk to the media and send letters to the editor. The local media can heighten the perceived importance of an issue any time of the year.
  • Form a coalition of nonprofit groups, which can broaden the credibility and clout for an issue by reaching diverse audiences. Look for groups with a different reason to come out in favor of your issue.

— Sources: River Network, 1000 Friends of Oregon, OMB Watch.