Candidate Forums and Appearances
Sponsoring or co-sponsoring a candidate forum demonstrates to the candidates that your community cares about what the candidates’ positions are and the election outcome. It shows that your organization is a leader in local civic affairs. Candidate forums require a time commitment to recruit the attendance of candidates and your audience. This may be easier in collaboration with other nonprofits in your area.
Among factors that make a candidate forum nonpartisan are:
- All candidates for an office are invited. (Even if all are invited, there is a risk that the event could appear partisan, if some candidates refuse to participate.) If only one candidate agrees to attend, it is no longer a forum.
- The rules of the forum don’t favor any candidate over another. (Consider using an independent moderator, setting time limits for replies, etc.)
- The questions are fair: Questions should address a broad range of issues, they should not suggest the response the forum sponsor prefers, and they should not be selected to show particular candidates in a better or worse light. This doesn’t mean they can’t be controversial!
Do the same principles apply to forums on ballot measures?
Yes and no. If the ballot measure forum is intended to be nonpartisan presenting both sides, the same principles apply. However, as opposed to a nonpartisan candidate forum, a nonprofit may hold a forum on a ballot measure intended to educate your constituents on why to vote “Yes” or “No.” In this case where you are advocating for or against a question, the forum becomes a lobbying activity, so the costs are reportable as a “lobbying expense.” For more, go to Ballot Measures.
May a candidate appear at a nonprofit function?
The IRS says that candidates may be invited to attend a nonprofit function on a nonpartisan basis. A candidate may appear in the following capacities:
1. In their capacity as candidate if the nonprofit:
- Provides an equal opportunity to other candidates for the same office — such as a similar time, venue and presentation format
- Does not indicate support for or opposition to the candidate. State this when the candidate is introduced and in communications about the appearance
- No political fundraising occurs
2. In their capacity as a public figure, such as an elected official or expert in their field if:
- The candidate is chosen to speak solely for reasons other than their candidacy and speaks only in a non-candidate capacity
- There is no mention of their candidacy during the presentation and the atmosphere is kept nonpartisan and free of campaign activity
- Without invitation on the candidate’s own initiative at a public event sponsored by a nonprofit. In such a case, it is important to be especially careful that there is no actual or implied endorsement. For example, don’t give the candidate a chance to address the gathering
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