Just One Thing: Communicating with Legislators

Imagine receiving a phone call at the office next February.  A legislator has read a bill, and wants your opinion on how it will affect….the work you do in the community.

Seem far-fetched?  Not necessarily, if you begin now building relationships with local legislators.  This relationship building begins with meeting the candidates running for election.  Educating them on the issues your nonprofit defends or supports.  Enlisting them to be a champion for those issues or for your nonprofit during the legislative session.  Encouraging your volunteers, clients, donors, supporters… to speak out on issues.  When you establish these relationships with legislators, build your reputation as a credible expert on an issue and create a grassroots effort to affect change, you just may receive that phone call from the legislator. 

The presenters, Nanette Gilbertson and Erin McGowan Fincham of Smith and McGowan, a lobbyist firm in Helena, promoted this scenario, these actions, as the first and most effective steps to advocating for the nonprofit community and the issues that affect the work you do.

Yet, there are times when a specific bill comes before the Legislature, and you are compelled to support or oppose it.  You are compelled to lobby for the best interests for your clients and your nonprofit.  You must be involved in direct lobbying.  And, yet…

Nonprofits operate within legal boundaries when we communicate with legislators through direct lobbying, explained the presenters.  Those boundaries are more clearly defined when we file a 501(h) election with the IRS through a Form 5768.   The IRS provides a formula with specific monetary limits on lobbying expenses.  Further, if you believe you, as a paid employee of your nonprofit, will be spending a significant amount of time or expenses (such as mailing out printed petitions), exceeding $2400, in direct lobbying in a calendar year, you may also need to register with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices as a principal.

The presenters also introduced a key tool for both advocating and lobbying. The Montana Legislative branch has set up a website to keep you connected to the legislative process and legislators.  You can also set up a preference list to receive notifications to track specific bills.

The final points the presenters left with the attendees were:

“Relationships are built over time through many interactions.”

and

“Policymakers respond to constituents and people they know and trust.”

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