Private Foundations and Public Policy

The Hyams Foundation is a mid-sized, local private, independent foundation that is active in funding public policy advocacy and change and encourages others to do so.

Federal Laws on Engaging in Public Policy Advocacy

More than 80 members of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) registered 1,200 new citizens to vote (June 16, 2016)

Too often, private independent foundation staff and trustees shy away from funding public policy advocacy because they believe that their foundations are not allowed to do so. Others may hesitate to support policy change because of the controversy or possible public criticism that could result. Private independent foundations must be mindful of the restrictions they are under when funding public policy change. Other restrictions apply to any direct foundation engagement in the public policy process.

Even within these guidelines, however, private foundations have the ability to support 501(c)(3) public policy-related activities, including legislative lobbying by grantees. Direct private foundation public policy activities can include policy-related research and education. Private foundation staff or trustees also may testify at legislative hearings on issues of concern under certain circumstances. And private foundations may engage in direct advocacy and lobbying themselves on policy issues of “self-defense”, where these issues affect their tax exempt or legal status directly.

Two organizations that provide very helpful advice on this topic are the Bolder Advocacy and the national Council on Foundations.

State Laws Governing Public Policy Advocacy

Individual states like Massachusetts may have additional laws and guidelines governing public policy advocacy and lobbying, either at the legislative or administrative level, by charitable organizations including private foundations. To understand these rules in Massachusetts, please refer to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Secretary of State’s website or contact the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network.

What is a Private/Independent Foundation?

Private foundations are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and also are classified as a private foundation as defined by the code. They must make charitable expenditures of approximately 5% of the market value of their assets each year.