Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

On the Ground

Catherine E. Wilson


Catherine E. Wilson

May 2, 2014 

In November of last year, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the US Department of the Treasury issued regulatory guidance on “candidate-related political activities” of 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. Since the proposed regulations were made public, the IRS received more than 150,000 comments, mostly critical, of these intended directives. The bipartisan criticisms have centered upon the expansive definition of political activity, which would restrict participation by 501(c)(4)s in nonpartisan voter registration and general communication efforts about candidates running for office. Independent Sector (IS) released a detailed response to these regulations on February 27, 2014, raising concerns about the negative impact the regulations would have on both public charities and social welfare organizations in their larger “civic engagement work and [involvement in] public policy debates.”

In the US nonprofit landscape, nonprofit organizations constitute a high-growth sector. In 2011, 1.6 million nonprofits were registered with the IRS, a 22 percent increase from 2001. Close to one million of these nonprofits were public charities, or 501(c)(3) organizations, such as hospitals, faith-based organizations, educational institutions, and museums. Public charities are prohibited from participation in political campaigns and are restricted in their lobbying efforts under federal tax law. In contrast, federal tax law permits social welfare organizations to freely engage in lobbying efforts, but limits their involvement in political campaigns. Unlike public charities, 501(c)(4)s total only about 112,000 organizations

Due to their direct lobbying efforts, social welfare organizations oftentimes are referred to as “advocacy organizations.” However, Marcia Avner (2010) reminds us not to conflate nonprofit “lobbying” with “advocacy.” According to Avner, advocacy is characterized by the general backing or criticism of a particular issue or initiative whereas lobbying involves taking a specific stance on a legislative proposal. In other words, lobbying is a particular kind of advocacy, but is not identical to advocacy itself. Advocacy is a more expansive term that also includes the domain of grassroots organizing – regularly championed by public charities and faith-based organizations – in an effort to hold leaders accountable for their decisions at the national, state, and local levels. In short, advocacy has many faces.

One needs to look no further than my own hometown of Philadelphia to understand the way advocacy, faith, and grassroots action have worked together on behalf of the region’s immigrant population.  On April 16, 2014, Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order which significantly limits collaboration between local police and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), permitting detention only if the person in question is convicted of a first- or second-degree felony (related to a violent act) and ICE has a federal warrant.  After years of grassroots organizing, New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) of Philadelphia, an interfaith network and immigrant justice organization, hailed the executive order as both a local and national victory for immigrants, calling it “one of the most progressive policies in the country.” 

Working alongside members of the Philadelphia Family Unity Network, NSM has engaged in coalition advocacy to hold decision makers accountable at the local level. The organization has also employed a range of cultural framing techniques, such as the staging of an “Un-Thanksgiving Day” Dinner in solidarity with eighteen other groups in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall in on November 27, 2013, in protest of President Obama’s record of immigrant deportations and in support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. 

The combination of advocacy, faith, and grassroots action has had a long history in Philadelphia.  After all, the founding of Catholic Social Services (CSS) in 1797 was in direct response to the Yellow Fever outbreak in 1793, which left thousands of children orphaned. CSS originally began as a lay effort, involving the private coordination of Catholics in opening their homes to take care of orphaned children. The inauguration in 1829 of Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), the first penitentiary dedicated solely to solitary confinement, was an outgrowth of a Quaker-inspired prison reform movement taking place in the City of Brotherly Love. Valid criticisms aside, Quaker reformers in Philadelphia viewed ESP’s establishment as a tangible way to advocate for a more humanitarian approach to prisoner rehabilitation. 

These examples drive home the many faces of advocacy – and more specifically faith-based advocacy – throughout the course of American history, and they teach us two important lessons: (1) the study of grassroots organizing is incomplete without an understanding of lived expressions of faith in the public square and (2) advocacy need not be partisan but is a textured and multidimensional thing. Commenting on the overwhelming response to the proposed IRS regulations, IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said it best: “When you have this many comments, you have to listen to them.” The IRS and general public should heed this advice. It is high time to allow nonprofit advocacy to speak for itself – as a natural extension of service provision and means of civic engagement in the United States.

- Catherine E. Wilson is associate professor and nonprofit coordinator, Department of Public Administration at Villanova University. She can be reached at; Follow her on Twitter @CEWilsonVU

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”