Exploring the Landscape of Political Lobbying: What Private Foundations Can and Cannot Do

by: Kyle Anderson
June 12, 2023
US Capitol Building

Private foundations are not mere bystanders when it comes to promoting social change and tackling the pressing issues of our society. They occupy a pivotal position, wielding the power to drive meaningful transformation. However, navigating the intricate landscape of political lobbying and advocacy requires a clear understanding of the boundaries within which they must operate.

What private foundations cannot do:

Electioneering: Private foundations cannot engage in partisan political activity or fund political campaign activities that aim to influence the outcome of a public election.

Direct lobbying: Private foundations cannot directly communicate with legislators to express a view about specific legislation. They are restricted from actively advocating for or against specific legislative proposals.

Grassroots lobbying: Private foundations are prohibited from asking the general public to communicate with legislators to express a view about specific legislation. This includes issuing "calls to action" or urging the public to contact lawmakers on particular issues.

Partisan activities: Private foundations are not allowed to support or fund activities endorsing specific political parties, candidates, or partisan causes.

What private foundations can do:

Supporting Advocacy Efforts: Private foundations can support and fund nonprofit organizations engaged in advocacy work. They have the ability to provide financial resources, capacity building assistance, and technical expertise to amplify the voices of these organizations. It is important to note that while private foundations cannot directly engage in lobbying activities themselves, they can support public charities that engage in lobbying. However, it is essential for private foundations to ensure that the grant funds they provide to nonprofit organizations are not primarily allocated for lobbying activities. Private foundations can even fund specific projects that include a line item for lobbying in their budget, but the grant agreement should specify that the grant amount cannot exceed the project's budgeted non-lobbying expenses.

Educating and Researching: Foundations can engage in educational initiatives and research to generate evidence-based knowledge that informs public policy debates. They can fund studies, commission research projects, and disseminate findings to influence decision-makers and the public. However, foundations must ensure their educational activities remain nonpartisan and do not cross into advocacy or lobbying.

Communicating with legislators: Foundations can engage in communication with legislators regarding matters of public concern, provided that they refrain from directly addressing specific legislative proposals and avoid crossing the line into direct lobbying by advocating for or against specific legislation.

Conducting and disseminating nonpartisan analysis or research: Private foundations can conduct and share nonpartisan analysis or research on legislative issues. This allows them to contribute valuable insights and expertise to inform public policy discussions. By providing objective and evidence-based research, foundations can help shape the understanding and debate around legislative matters, promoting informed decision-making by policymakers and the public.

Lobbying on their own behalf: Foundations have the ability to engage in lobbying activities on their own behalf, especially when their tax-exempt status, duties, or governing regulations are affected. This allows foundations to advocate for their own interests and protect their ability to carry out their charitable work. By participating in advocacy efforts that directly impact their operations, foundations can help shape the legal and regulatory landscape in which they operate.

Foundation board members, officers, and staff: They have the freedom to engage in private lobbying on their own time and behalf, but they must draw a distinct line between their personal activities and their actions on behalf of the foundation to avoid misconstrued representation.


Private foundations have an important role in advocating for social change and influencing public opinion. While they have limitations on their own political activities, they can support advocacy efforts, contribute to research and education, and foster informed public discourse. Adhering to legal and ethical boundaries enables foundations to maintain their integrity and effectively address societal challenges. By navigating these boundaries with care, private foundations can make a lasting impact in shaping a better future.

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