Earlier this month, Independent Sector circulated a questionnaire to all the 2020 presidential campaigns. That, in and of itself, does not sound newsworthy. But it’s in fact a novel thing to do as a nonprofit.
The reality is that, as nonprofit leaders, many of us are not as practiced at engaging candidates running for office as we ought to be. There are any number of possible reasons for that, a major one being that there are very specific guidelines for how 501(c)(3) organizations step into this form of engagement – whether we are talking about presidential campaigns, congressional campaigns, or local races. While these guidelines are real, they are not difficult to follow. So, don’t let them scare you off.
There are many helpful guides to assist you as you navigate your way through the candidate engagement process. Nonprofit VOTE has a number of resources to help you plan a candidate questionnaire or candidate forum. Independent Sector consulted these resources more than once to make sure we were staying on the right side of the line as we developed our presidential candidate questionnaire. We encourage you to do the same and want to highlight a few pointers to help you along.
The first rule of thumb is that, if you intend is to invite this kind of a conversation with one candidate (through a questionnaire or a candidate forum), you need to invite everyone running for that office. From there, you need to think carefully about the questions you will ask; keeping them clear, unbiased, and representative of a broad range of concerns within your organization’s issue area. (Read our full questionnaire)
And, of course, once the responses are in, you need to collect and share all of them. This would definitely not be the time to choose and share the answers you like best. Come back to the first rule of thumb – an all-candidate questionnaire is about ALL candidates.
Like many of you, I am sure, I read something almost daily about the importance of this moment in our nation’s history and the crucial role civil society plays in the health of democracy. All true. But the fact is that civil society – the voice of our sector – cannot play that role if we don’t engage, including with candidates. Our voice matters. Our questions matter. And what we learn from candidates in this nonpartisan engagement process matters enormously when it comes to the highest form of personal advocacy: how we vote.
So, this is the time to engage candidates with energy, with passion, and with smarts. This is our right. I would argue it is our obligation and responsibility. So, get out there. Lift your voice. Ask your questions. And follow the simple rules to ensure that you are doing so with integrity and complete accountability to keep partisan politics out of our sector.
Thanks, as always, for spending time with this month’s edition of Voices for Good. And as a reminder, Upswell is less than two months away. Hope to see you there!