Engaging Candidates

Candidates for public office are often the most accessible and open to hearing new ideas during an election.  Therefore, elections offer an excellent opportunity for nonprofits and their stakeholders to educate candidates about issues important to their mission and communities.  Nonprofits use nonpartisan strategies to begin building relationships with future elected officials, share policy ideas, and influence policy debates.

Included below are five nonpartisan activities 501(c)(3) nonprofits can do to build productive working relationships with candidates and elected officials:

1. Attend Candidate Events – Don’t be shy! Attend candidate events and feel free to ask questions. However, if you are representing your organization, your approach must be strictly nonpartisan — e.g. You must ask the same question at events for all candidates in the same race.

2. Share Your Policy Ideas – Although elected officials can benefit from your ideas and research year-round, elections provide a focused opportunity to build clout while demonstrating your organization’s expertise. During a campaign, candidates need current research and fresh ideas to answer questions and connect with voters. Sharing your policy ideas with candidates can help forward your mission but be sure to make your ideas and existing research available to all candidates.

3. Invite Candidates to an Event – Invite candidates to visit your nonprofit or attend an event, as the invitation alone gets your organization’s name in front of the candidates. Hosting candidates at an event allows your constituents and stakeholders to ask questions and familiarize themselves with their choices. See our Candidate Appearances factsheet for additional details.

4. Conduct a Candidate Questionnaire – Candidate questionnaires let candidates—and the public—know what issues you care about. Invite all of the candidates in a particular race to respond to a set of questions. Once you’ve collected responses, be sure to publicize them on your website and in your communications. Many candidates are often short on time and are fielding many requests, so consider collaborating with a partner or coalition to consolidate your efforts and increase the likelihood that candidates will reply.

5. Host or Co-Sponsor a Candidate Forum – Candidate forums not only connect your organization with candidates, but they also give your constituents and community members a chance to meet and interact with future officials. Hosting a candidate forum can raise the profile of your nonprofit and highlight your issues during an election

For an example of candidate engagement, check out Independent Sector’s efforts to engage 2020 presidential candidates.

Candidate Engagement Tools & Resources

Global Topics: Civil Society, Election, Public Policy
Policy Issues: Lobbying & Political Activity, Political Activity Rules
Resource Types: Toolkit