Advocacy Groups Essay

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In political science, advocacy groups form a subgroup of interest groups. Interest groups can represent the self-interest of their members or a broader public interest. Public interest groups also are called advocacy groups in that they seek to promote a common or collective good. But this definition is not universally shared. Some scholars, including Ross Stephens and Nelson Wikstrom (2007), assign the term public interest groups to lobbying organizations that represent the interest of governmental entities, such as the National League of Cities.

Another ambiguity involves the legitimacy of advocacy activities. Traditionally, scholars have accepted advocacy groups as essential components of pluralist democracy, while more recently issue advocacy has been associated with negative forms of political communication.

Brief History

Advocacy groups can trace their origin to political movements in the nineteenth century. Organizations with dedicated leaders and dues-paying members emerged to pursue a variety of political causes and seek fundamental constitutional changes, such as the abolition of slavery or suffrage for women. Improved literacy made it possible to print newspapers and pamphlets to mobilize supporters and educate the public.

Advocacy groups survived over time by adapting their goals and tactics to changing political conditions. The NAACP, for instance, was founded in 1909 to promote civil rights, as well as educational and economic opportunities, for people of color. After women obtained the right to vote in 1920, activists reconstituted themselves as the League of Women Voters to educate women about their new right, as well as to promote good government reforms.

Advocacy for animals, plants, and unique landscapes has its roots in the nineteenth century as well. The idea of conservation and the creation of national parks established a foundation for the contemporary environmental movement. Today, the high-tech revolution and new forms of communication have made the mobilization of supporters much easier, but also has facilitated the spread of misinformation.

Scope, Purpose, And IRS Rules

The organizational structure of advocacy groups varies, depending on the cause they are championing. Some are international in scope, and they may have offices in major world cities. U.S. advocacy groups with a national focus tend to have their headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area, with chapters spread across the country. Quite a few groups promote statewide, regional, or local causes, and their geographical presence is limited accordingly.

The incorporation of advocacy groups is regulated by state law, while tax-exempt status comes under the purview of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).The tax code makes two distinctions that delineate the limits imposed on lobbying and political involvements of advocacy groups. One is the distinction between section 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations.

Those 501(c)(3) entities, including foundations, have to be organized and operated for purposes such as religious, charitable, educational, scientific, or cultural objectives. Among tax-exempt organizations, 501(c)(3) groups enjoy the most favorable tax treatment. Not only are they exempt from the federal income tax, but they also can accept tax deductible donations.

In return for the favorable tax treatment, 501(c)(3) entities are limited in their advocacy work and lobbying. In 1934, new tax law stipulated that “no substantial part” of the organization’s activities could be used to influence the legislative process. In 1976, Congress passed legislation that allowed 501(c) (3) organizations either to continue under the “no substantial part” clause or under new rules that set specific dollar amounts depending on the size of the organization. Congress and the IRS settled on generous limits to avoid violating First Amendment rights. The 501(c)(3) groups can work also within IRS rules by presenting their advocacy work as educational efforts and by using volunteers rather than paid lobbyists to speak to legislators. They also can create 501(c)(4) subsidiaries.

The appropriate Internal Revenue Code for tax-exempt organizations that want to make advocacy their major mission is section 501(c)(4). It covers entities that seek to promote general social welfare and civic improvements. The activities have to support a public-serving cause; they cannot be of a membership-serving nature. Financial support for 501(c)(4) comes in the form of dues and non-tax-deductible donations from members who believe in the cause. Major 501(c)(4) groups have foundations as affiliates, to which tax-deductible donations for educational and other appropriate purposes can be directed.

The second important distinction in the federal tax code is between (1) lobbying and seeking to influence the policymaking process versus (2) partisan political activities and electioneering. Neither 501(c)(3) nor 501(c)(4) organizations can engage in election activities, by which the IRS means explicitly supporting or opposing candidates running for political office. However, for more direct electoral involvement, 501(c)(4) entities can create political organizations under section 527.The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), as amended, limits the amount of money section 527 entities can spend for or against candidates. However, FECA created new ambiguities, which the Supreme Court tried to resolve by distinguishing between express advocacy, such as mentioning a candidate, and issue advocacy, or focusing on a policy issue. The express form of political communication falls under FECA, but issue advocacy does not.


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  2. Boris, Elizabeth T., and Jeff Krehely. “Civic Participation and Advocacy.” In The State of Nonprofit America, edited by Lester M. Salamon, 299–330. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2003.
  3. Dwyre, Diana. “Campaigning Outside the Law: Interest Group Issue Advocacy.” In Interest Group Politics, 6th ed., edited by Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis, 141–159.Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002.
  4. Fowler, Linda L., Constantine J. Spiliotes, and Lynn Vavreck. “Group Advocacy in the New Hampshire Presidential Primary.” In The Interest Group Connection: Electioneering, Lobbying, and Policymaking in Washington, 2nd ed., edited by Paul S. Herrnson, Ronald G. Shaiko, and Clyde Wilcox, 89–111.Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2005.
  5. O’Neill, Michael. The Third America.The Emergence of the Nonprofit Sector in the United States. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.
  6. Skocpol,Theda. “How Americans Became Civic.” In Civic Engagement in American Democracy, edited by Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina, 27–80.Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999.
  7. Smucker, Robert. The Nonprofit Lobbying Guide, 2nd ed.Washington, D.C.: Independent Sector, 1999.
  8. Stephens, G. Ross, and Nelson Wikstrom. American Intergovernmental Relations: A Fragmented Federal Polity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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