Candidate Forums

Providers-2010-forum-3Hosting a candidate forum can raise the profile of your nonprofit and gain the attention of candidates to your issues. It positions you as leader in local civic affairs and can engage and educate your local community. They are time-intensive and require advance planning and generally done in collaboration with other community partners.

Nonpartisan Guidelines

To conduct your forum on a nonpartisan basis, follow these factors recommended by the IRS and practitioners.

  • Invite all (viable*) candidates and make an equal effort to have them attend. You need two or more candidates attending to call it a forum. See question one below.
  • The forum should cover a broad range of issues – or a broad range of topics within a single issue.
  • Use a moderator skilled at setting a nonpartisan tone. Consider setting time limits for replies and give candidates equal time to respond.
  • It generally helps to screen questions from the audience ahead of time (ask them to submit their questions at the start) to get a diversity of issues and viewpoints.
  • Questions from the moderator they should not suggest the response the forum sponsor prefers. This doesn’t mean they can’t be controversial!
  • Have ground rules for the audience at the outset. We recommend no partisan buttons or attire and respectfully refrain from exuberance for or against candidate statements.
  • All candidate materials or signs should be kept outside the hall.

*You can establish reasonable criteria for “viability” in a large field.

Q: What if a candidate pulls out at the last minute and only one candidate shows up.

You have two choices. The first is to cancel the forum. You need two or more candidates to have a forum. However, if the forum is being held at an already scheduled event where other activities are also planned, you can introduce the candidate who does show up and allow them to make a short statement. In this case, make it clear that it’s done as a courtesy and not an endorsement.

Q: If it is a primary election and only the party seen most likely to win the seat in the general election has a field of candidates. Can we just hold a forum for the party’s primary?

Only if there are no other candidates contesting the seat from other parties. If so, you should invite viable candidates from all political parties. If no one else is running, go ahead and hold the forum for the party with competing candidates.

Q: What is a standard for viability to limit the number of candidates on the stage?

You have discretion to set you own standard. Generally in crowded field, you might consider using a threshold such as the likelihood of getting a certain percent of the vote – for example, more than 5% – in the upcoming election based on past performance or polling or if they have mounted a serious campaign in terms of appearances, door knocking or fundraising.

Q: Do the same principles apply to educational forums on ballot measures?

Yes, but only if the ballot measure forum is intended to be educational and provide a neutral presentation of the arguments for both sides. As discussed in the section on Ballot Measures, a nonprofit can take sides on ballot questions and do a forum measure intended to educate your constituents on why to vote “Yes” or “No.” While you can still use some of the same principles, note that the forum becomes a lobbying activity, so the costs are reportable as a lobbying expense.

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