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Distinguishing between advocacy and education  

At a meeting of recipients of federal funding for climate change education projects held during the American Geophysical Union Fall 2010 conference, there was a discussion about how we distinguish between advocacy and education. It was felt that it would be helpful to have a set of shared guidelines that would shape our projects. Where do you think the line is between advocacy and education/outreach/civic engagement?


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The IRS provides some help in defining what constitutes advocacy and lobbying.

In publication 557 (, Section 501(c)(3) Organizations are exempt from taxation when "[T]he organization will not, as a substantial part of its activities, attempt to influence legislation (unless it elects to come under the provisions allowing certain lobbying expenditures) or participate to any extent in a political campaign for or against any candidate for public office."

"The term educational relates to:

- The instruction or training of individuals for the purpose of improving or developing their capabilities, or

- The instruction of the public on subjects useful to individuals and beneficial to the community.

Advocacy of a position. Advocacy of a particular position or viewpoint may be educational if there is a sufficiently full and fair exposition of pertinent facts to permit an individual or the public to form an independent opinion or conclusion. The mere presentation of unsupported opinion is not educational.

Method not educational. The method used by an organization to develop and present its views is a factor in determining if an organization qualifies as educational within the meaning of section 501(c)(3). The following factors may indicate that the method is not educational.

- The presentation of viewpoints unsupported by facts is a significant part of the organization's communications.

- The facts that purport to support the viewpoint are distorted.

- The organization's presentations make substantial use of inflammatory and disparaging terms and express conclusions more on the basis of emotion than of objective evaluations.

- The approach used is not aimed at developing an understanding on the part of the audience because it does not consider their background or training."

"Attempting to influence legislation. Attempting to influence legislation, for this purpose, means:

1. Any attempt to influence any legislation through an effort to affect the opinions of the general public or any segment thereof (grass roots lobbying), and

2. Any attempt to influence any legislation through communication with any member or employee of a legislative body or with any government official or employee who may participate in the formulation of legislation (direct lobbying).

However, the term attempting to influence legislation does not include the following activities.

1. Making available the results of nonpartisan analysis, study, or research.

2. Examining and discussing broad social, economic, and similar problems.

3. Providing technical advice or assistance (where the advice would otherwise constitute the influencing of legislation) to a governmental body or to a committee or other subdivision thereof in response to a written request by that body or subdivision.

4. Appearing before, or communicating with, any legislative body about a possible decision of that body that might affect the existence of the organization, its powers and duties, its tax-exempt status, or the deduction of contributions to the organization.

5. Communicating with a government official or employee, other than:

a. A communication with a member or employee of a legislative body (when the communication would otherwise constitute the influencing of legislation), or

b. A communication with the principal purpose of influencing legislation.

Also excluded are communications between an organization and its bona fide members about legislation or proposed legislation of direct interest to the organization and the members, unless these communications directly encourage the members to attempt to influence legislation or directly encourage the members to urge nonmembers to attempt to influence legislation."

Are these distinctions helpful to us?


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