How to Organize a Candidate Forum
A candidate forum is a public event where candidates running for office are invited to express their positions on AAUW issues. Whether for a local, state, or federal election, a candidate event is a great way to engage your community around an upcoming election, to build support for the issues that matter to AAUW, and to learn more about the candidates running to represent you. This guide provides easy tips for organizing and executing a successful candidate forum.
Pick a time and date to host your forum. Avoid religious or government holidays, dates when other community functions are scheduled, and business hours. Look for a location that will attract a broad range of community members, such as a local school, community center, or library. For more on planning logistics for your event, read our six steps to diverse, engaging programs. Once your date, time, and location are confirmed, let us know about your event so that we can send you materials and help support your activities!
Invite the Candidates
Send an invitation letter to the candidates well before the planned event and follow up with a phone call. As a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, AAUW must extend an invitation to all major-party candidates in that election (see the section on keeping your forum nonpartisan below). Be flexible; it may take some time to find a date that will work for all the candidates’ schedules. When inviting candidates, send them AAUW issue fact sheets and the AAUW Public Policy Priorities.
Select a Format
A candidate forum can take place in many formats. Possibilities include
- Candidates give prepared remarks, and attendees ask follow-up questions from microphones in the audience.
- Candidates are asked prepared questions on themes important to AAUW and your community.
- Candidates are asked questions that the audience submits on index cards. At the end, candidates provide closing statements, with an equal amount of time given to each candidate.
Regardless of your format, you’ll need a moderator to introduce the candidates, start the dialogue, and keep the discussion moving. Ask a well-known, nonpartisan member of your community to serve in this role — she or he will help generate interest in the event and add credibility.
Give AAUW a presence at your candidate forum. Set up a check-in table where attendees can pick up AAUW literature or swag and sign up for the AAUW Action Network. You may also take this opportunity to register eligible voters. Check out AAUW’s voter registration guide for more tips.
Fill the Seats
Turnout is everything in election season! Use these tips to share your invitation far and wide.
Reach Out to Diverse Organizations
Consider co-organizing your candidate forum with a like-minded organization. Working in coalition allows you to reach more people, increase AAUW membership, and gain additional exposure. The extra hands will help you divide the work so you can plan a bigger event, and you can share networks for better publicity. Check out our guide to community engagement for more tips.
Generate an Audience
Spread the word to local AAUW branches and national members in your area via branch Listservs, newsletters, policy chairs, and social media. Send invitations to AAUW college/university partners, coalition members, and other guests.
And last but not least: Invite the public! Post about the event on Facebook and Twitter, submit an announcement to free community bulletin boards, and share the invitation in newspapers and community cable outlets. AAUW’s Public Policy and Government Relations Department can also help you spread the word by sending an event invitation and online registration link to members and supporters in your area. Contact us at VoterEd@aauw.org.
Invite Local and Regional Media
Send a media advisory notifying the news media about your event three to five days in advance. Allocate central, unobstructed space close to electrical outlets for TV camera crews and reporters so that they can have a clear line of sight to the central proceedings of your event. Read our guide for working with the media for a complete discussion of how to earn media coverage for an event.
Keep Your Forum Nonpartisan
As a trusted, nonpartisan voice in the community, AAUW branches are uniquely suited to host candidate forums. However, several rules govern our activity and behavior. See AAUW’s Policy 301 in the AAUW Board of Directors Policy Book.
Before a partisan election, AAUW branches may host candidate forums to which all major-party candidates in that election are invited. AAUW branches with 501(c)(4) status must make a thorough and good faith effort to ensure the participation of at least two candidates for a specific office but may proceed with a forum if only one candidate accepts. AAUW branches with 501(c)(3) status may only proceed with a candidate forum event if at least two candidates have accepted the invitation.
AAUW branches must make clear to forum attendees and in pre-publicity and post-publicity, if applicable, that other candidates or parties were invited to participate, naming names and giving reasons for nonparticipation, quoting invitees. If no reason is given for nonparticipation, then the AAUW branch or state should state such to attendees and in pre-publicity. This avoids the impression that you are taking a partisan stance by omission. These rules apply to federal elections. Check state election code for other races.
Don’t forget to say thanks! Thank the participating candidates with letters or phone calls. Be certain to send a letter of appreciation to the moderator. Send a follow-up e-mail to attendees to thank them for coming and offer additional opportunities to get involved, such as attending an upcoming issue forum, volunteering at a voter registration drive, or joining AAUW.
As always, let us know how your candidate forum went by filling out this form. Your feedback helps us quantify AAUW’s nationwide reach. We may even highlight your event in our publications and websites!
When members take advocacy actions in the name of AAUW, those actions must be political rather than partisan. Here are some things to keep in mind when determining if your actions are political or partisan
There’s more to tabling than sitting at a table with brochures. Learn how to plan a tabling event that recruits new members and engages your community on AAUW issues.
This guide provides some easy steps to running a successful voter registration campaign. Read on, and remember that the AAUW public policy staff is here to help — consider them your resource and sounding board.