A candidate forum is an event where candidates running for elected office are invited to discuss their views and positions. Hosting a candidate forum can provide §501(c)(3) organizations with a meaningful and informative way to engage with voters and political candidates. As with all election-related activity, organizations must remain unbiased and nonpartisan. This article is intended to help guide §501(c)(3) organizations through hosting a successful candidate forum without risking its §501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. This article does not address Federal or State Election laws.
Public forums are an acceptable form of civic participation and a way for §501(c)(3) organizations to educate the public about candidates running for office. However, when hosting this type of event, a §501(c)(3) organization cannot engage in biased questioning or procedures. Where §501(c)(3) organizations act with political bias, they are engaging in prohibited “partisan” activity which can result in loss of tax-exemption or taxes paid by the organization and its managers. Thus, §501(c)(3) organizations must behave in a strictly “nonpartisan” way and cannot support or oppose any candidate for elected office.
In 1986, the IRS provided guidance on hosting candidate forums.A §501(c)(3) organization is allowed to host a candidate forum if:
- The goal of the event is to educate and inform voters.
- The event treats all candidates fairly and equally.
- The event does not promote or advocate one candidate over another.
When hosting a forum, a §501(c)(3) organization must invite all legally qualified candidates to speak. Even if all the candidates do not attend, they all must be invited. It is important to retain evidence that all candidates were invited and their responses. The forum date and time should not conflict with an already well-published major event for one or more of the candidates.
Further, questions asked to candidates should be prepared and presented by a nonpartisan, independent panel of experts, and an unbiased, neutral moderator must be present and enforce the rules of forum. Further, the questions asked of candidates should cover a broad range of issues. These issues may include ones of particular importance to the §501(c)(3) organization host but should not be limited to those.
Both the format and content of the forum must be neutral. Each candidate should be given equal time and an equal opportunity to talk about the candidate’s views on each issue. The moderator and independent panel of experts should not comment on the questions or otherwise approve or disapprove of a candidate or the candidate’s answers. The moderator should also start and end the event by saying that the candidates’ views are their own, and that the §501(c)(3) organization is not endorsing or supporting any candidate by hosting the forum.
Put simply, a §501(c)(3) organization planning to host a candidate forum should remember to treat all candidates in a fair, equal, and balanced way. Also, the organization should document every step of its forum planning process. For example, the organization should save any emails with candidates and have a record that all legally qualified candidates were invited to the event. If your organization has any questions about hosting a candidate forum, you should contact your attorney to discuss the details and rules prior to engaging in the forum.