Elections: How holding a candidate forum can advance your advocacy goals
Partnering with other organizations to host debates, candidates’ nights, and meet and greets boosts your group’s profile and can secure commitments from politicians to support your issues.
The legislative session will be wrapped up in most states by July 31st and many organizations will find their legislative hopes dashed. Despite co-sponsors and votes in favor, sometimes the issue isn’t lawmakers’ support, it’s the urgency of their support.
Getting commitments from candidates to not only support, but champion, your organization’s goals is much easier when they are running for office and have something to lose than when they’re safely in office. The easiest way to secure this commitment is to hold, either alone or with other groups, a candidate forum.
Holding a candidate forum helps your association, non-profit, or union:
- Increase credibility (as long as you do it well and have good attendance)
- Make your issues campaign issues
- Get candidates on the record supporting your issue so you can circle back when it comes time to ask them to co-sponsor or vote your way
Despite laws banning non-profits from engaging in certain political activities, there are certain things you’re able to do. (To receive a cheat sheet about what activity is allowed, click here.)*
You can hold an issues forum or a candidates’ forum without crossing any lines. The trick is to make sure you never endorse or give the appearance of favoring one candidate over another.
If your organization has ever held a conference or other choreographed event, you’ve already got the right skill set to make sure the forum is a success. In addition to common-sense event planning, here’s how to do it right:
- Get the most bang for your buck: Secure partners, such as other organizations who care about your issues and/or the local newspaper. Send out a media advisory about the event and a follow-up press release about how it went. Have a hashtag for the event and quote and tag candidates as-it-happens.
- Make sure you invite all the candidates: (Otherwise you risk your c3 status.) Work with them on scheduling a date. Don’t just schedule it when it works well for you.
- Involve your members: Ask the best public speakers amongst your supporters to ask pre-selected questions. Have them briefly tell the candidates why the issue is important to them (story-telling). Ask your members to tweet out thanks to the candidates for coming and supporting XYZ issues.
- Keep it professional: Get a well-respected moderator like a reporter to ask the questions. Solicit questions from your members in advance but sort through them and pick the best. Send the candidates information on your organization and your goals ahead of time. If you’re feeling particularly generous, send them the questions ahead of time, too. This way they can adequately prepare. Chances are they won’t come if they don’t already support you, so making it easier for them helps with your goal of relationship-building and rising higher on their priority list.
- Stay classy: Make sure both you and your supporters have an even, friendly tone in asking questions. The object isn’t for one candidate to “win” over the other; it’s for your association or non-profit to win, to increase credibility. Send the candidates hand-written thank you notes afterwards. Tag them in social media thanking them for participating and for any commitments they make at the forum to your issues. Ask your members to thank them via email or social media as well.
When the election is over and legislative and budgetary priorities are being considered in December and January, visit the elected official and (gently) remind them of their commitment. If they saw your organization as one that helped them reach voters and get press, they’ll be much more likely to put more “oomph” behind their advocacy for your priorities.
*Disclaimer: This information is educational only and should not be construed as legal advice.
Stefanie Coxe is the founder & principal of Nexus Werx LLC, a political training company offering the Learn to Lobby line of online and in-person training products including Effective Activism 101, Lobbying 101, and a Community Monitoring Program for membership-based organizations. Sign up for her e-newsletter to get tips on training and mobilizing members and activists.