All lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying!

Advocacy OR Lobbying??

All lobbying is advocacy, but not all advocacy is lobbying!

The Fine Print – the following isn’t legal advice but if you wish to dig deeper we can direct you to some lawyers who really get this stuff! Check your local rules, laws and requisite registration requirements.

 Advocacy: (a generally accepted definition) Finding and using your voice. The process or act of raising awareness or providing information in favor of an idea, cause or policy. There is no limit to the amount of non-lobbying advocacy your organization can do – unless – as in some jurisdictions Charities and Not For Profits receiving certain government funding will need to ensure they are in compliance with expenditure limitations.

Lobbying: (as defined by US Federal tax law): Any attempt to influence specific legislation generally conducted in either or each of the following ways:

  • Directly contacting, or urging the public to contact, policy makers for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing certain legislation, or
  • By advocating the adoption or rejection of targeted legislation.

Lobbying is generally thought to involve three parts: 1Communication with a 2policy maker that 3takes a position on specific, pending legislation.

What are the key differences between advocacy and lobbying?

  1. There is no limit to the amount of non-lobbying advocacy your organization can do, while lobbying activities may be restricted to a percentage of your operating budget. (Check your local rules!)
  2. Lobbying involves attempts to influence specific legislation while advocacy is focused on educating about a specific issue.

Why does advocacy matter?

When done effectively, advocacy influences public policy by providing a conduit for individuals and organizations to voice an opinion – connecting policy makers with the constituents most likely affected by changes being considered or needed.

These efforts can, in turn, sway public opinion, garner press coverage, and ultimately provide policymakers an opportunity to respond to constituents’ needs.

Effective advocacy is a mix of:

  1. Identifying the right audience (the policymaker).
  2. Having a persuasive message (clearly stating what you want to achieve and how it relates to the policy).
  3. Including an individual or local perspective (telling a story).

Advocacy vs. lobbying: What’s the difference?

Advocacy is the process of stakeholders making their voices heard on issues that affect their lives and the lives of others at the local, provincial, and national level. It also means helping policymakers find specific solutions to persistent problems. Most non-profits can and do engage in advocacy as much as possible to achieve their goals.

Lobbying, on the other hand, involves activities that are in direct support of or opposition to a specific piece of introduced legislation. While non-profits can engage in some lobbying, the IRS has strict rules about what portion of their budget can go toward these activities. There are also prohibitions on any use of federal funds for lobbying.

Examples of advocacy vs. lobbying


  • Telling your elected government member how public funding of your organization has helped your constituents.
  • Educating an elected government official about the effects of a policy on your community, membership or network.
  • Inviting a member of government to visit your organization so that they may see firsthand how funding or a policy affects day-to-day operations and the difference it makes.


  • Asking your elected government member to vote for or against, or amend, introduced legislation.
  • Emailing a “call to action” to your members urging them to contact their member of Government in support of action on introduced legislation or pending regulations.
  • Preparing materials or organizing events in support of lobbying activities.

How can you be an advocate?

You can be an advocate by raising awareness and educating policymakers about the needs of your organization and the people you serve, and developing a relationship where you contribute as a trusted voice on policy issues and a helpful resource with legislative casework. You also can organize supporters on issues of importance and educate a wider audience on your accomplishments. Some examples include:

  • Emailing or calling your elected officials.
  • Organizing meetings or site visits with your legislators and their staff.
  • Making your views known to policymakers and your community through traditional and social media.
  • Keep in mind that these activities cross the line into lobbying if they call for action on introduced legislation or a pending regulation.

Check out a really great slide presentation from the Imagine Canada website here: Imagine Canada Advocacy Slides

With adaptations from:

Washington Nonprofits and “The Board Advocacy Project”
National Council on Aging [ ]
Astra Zeneca “Young Health Program” Playbook
Imagine Canada



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