This document is intended to collect examples of materials used, insights into what worked well, and what did not into one place. Hopefully, it will give anyone considering putting on state-wide forums in the future a starting point.
The LWVUS published Face to Face LWV Debate Guide. This guide was written for national level forums, and last updated in 2007, but is well worth becoming familiar with and drawing materials from as appropriate. A more current resource is the Guidelines for State And Local League Debates including “empty chair” debates.
The LWVWA Board should decide that putting on state-wide forums is what they want to do then address the following and document their expectations
The person identified to run the effort should establish the overall strategy based on the Board inputs. The 2016 strategy was to hold forums on both sides of the state and cover as many down ticket (not the senate or the gubernatorial races) as reasonable.
The Board needs to set money aside for the forums to cover costs such as advertising, venue and other costs. The 2016 forums used approximately $2000 primarily on venues. Selection of partners can be done based on their ability to provide a venue at no or reduced cost and this was done several times for the 2016 effort.
The method used for the 2016 forums was for a Forum Focal or Manager to be appointed. The Forum Manager reported to the Board regularly, but apprised the Board President of issues on an as needed basis. A group that was interested in the working on the forums was used as a sounding board with approximately monthly updates on progress and requests for assistance in specific areas being issued. Individuals with specific expertise were called on as required. At least two LWV representatives attended all forum related meetings with co-sponsors and potential co-sponsors.
Each forum held had local league involvement. The local league helped identify venues, moderators, sponsors and partners, local advertising, volunteers and anything else that was needed locally at the specific locations. In one case providing day-care was considered because of the expected audience.
In 2008 arrangements were made with KOMO TV to broadcast the gubernatorial forum (see Fisher MOU). In 2016, letters asking about interest in broadcasting our forums were sent to KOMO, KING, KIRO, KCTS and TVW (see sample letter). As a result, meetings were set up with KCTS and TVW. Both were interested in being part of our efforts to get the forums to the public. Subsequently, KCTS dropped out due to a commitment with Seattle City Club (they were holding senate and gubernatorial debates).
TVW was excellent to work with. They provided a list of Off-site Webcasting Requirements that are no doubt now out-of-date in their specifics, but offer a guideline for what kinds of technical requirements you may encounter. We learned late in the forum cycle that the debates could be live-streamed via Facebook (TVW did not realize it either) and so we took advantage of that for the last few forums. That should be done for all the forums in the future. A relationship was developed with the TV programming producer so that TVW crews were sent to almost all of our events. Where they were not able to cover the event due to a conflict, contact was made with local area City TV broadcasters and they were able to provide a broadcast crew and the film was then shared with TVW for state-wide airing.
We were provided with a What Not to Wear on TV document by the local Bellingham TV station to provide to the candidates.
We strove to get eastern Washington leagues involved for the 2016 forums. Of the 19 forum events, we were able to hold three forums in eastern WA, but only for the general election.
In the future, I would try to reach out to the various local leagues asking about their interest at convention or council to try to firm up locations earlier.
Each event is unique because each local league has different strengths and needs. It is imperative to have early buy in and dedicated participation form the local leagues for volunteers, venue arrangements, local publicity and local partners, sponsors and co-sponsors. Please see Forum Planning Table, Putting on a Forum, Your Quick Forum To-Do List,and Why Local League Should Use State-Wide Forum Resources. Also included in the example documents is a sample Kick Off Forum Planning Agenda that was used on several occasions for the initial meeting with the local group that was going to be involved with the forum.
A schedule of the forums that can be shared with the various league members working on planning events was also found to be useful (Schedule and Publicity Plan).
WITH FOUR MONTHS TO GO
1. Identify other nonprofits in your district who would be good partners
See Sponsors/Co-Sponsors section.
2. Set date, time, and place for the forum
The forum should be held during the middle of the week and in the evening to allow ample time for attendees to arrive after work/daytime commitments. It is generally best to start the forum between 6–7:30 p.m. Because so many people rely on public transportation, especially in the larger metro areas, it is important to ensure plenty of time after the work day has finished for everyone to arrive at the event.
Check out community calendars to make sure that there are no competing community events on the evening you are scheduling your forum. Keep in mind that on Fridays most people have their own social plans, so avoid hosting forums on Fridays when possible. Finish on time. Journalists covering the event often prefer earlier end times because of deadline restrictions.
Finally, we’d suggest making the place for the forum centrally located in the district and near a transit line for easy access. Be sure to ask the facility about safety requirements and adhere to them strictly. Make provisions for childcare at the forum and make sure your location is disability accessible.
3. Decide on the forum’s format
See Forum Formats Section for more details on format options. Also decide on time limits for each candidate’s response; this will depend on how many candidates attend.
4. Develop a budget
Develop a budget for the forum early and stick to it. Don’t let costs get out of hand.
WITH THREE MONTHS TO GO
1. Invite all candidates.
Send out a letter inviting the candidates.
Make a phone call to say the letter is coming. Then make a phone call after the letter has arrived to encourage a response. It is very important to the candidates that forums remain nonpartisan. Therefore, emphasize that as a 501(c)(3) you must ensure the forum is nonpartisan. Also, keep in mind that some candidates might not fully understand the impact that nonprofit organizations have in their districts. Therefore, be sure to include this information in the conversations you have and materials you provide to candidates. Maintain contact with candidates throughout the planning process. This helps to ensure they are comfortable with the format and will participate as planned.
2. Initiate contact with media.
Make a list of media sources you would like to promote and/or cover the event (newspaper, radio, television — don’t forget about small community media sources or non-English language media sources).
Contact these media sources. Send email and hard copy of a media advisory which should include date, time, place of the forum and co-sponsoring organizations. Designate a spokesperson to be the media liaison and to follow up with media regularly. This is a good role for communications staff. (For more information on the role of media in planning a candidate forum, see Publicity section.)
WITH TWO MONTHS TO GO
1. Volunteer recruitment
Your forum planning committee should make a list of volunteer needs both for publicizing and planning prior to the forum and on the day of the event. There are many roles for volunteers (e.g. passing out fliers in advance, set up and tear down of space, greeting audience members, collecting audience questions for Q&A). Be sure to have enough volunteers to comfortably cover all of your needs. Email and call your organization’s members and constituents to request volunteers.
2. Select a moderator
The moderator should be someone who is well-respected and viewed by the public as politically neutral and nonpartisan. Ideally, the moderator should be someone who lives outside of the voting district. The perceived objectivity of your moderator is crucial to candidates, the media and forum-sponsoring organizations. A journalist is a good person to choose as the moderator due to their experience with being objective and nonpartisan. It is your job to prepare your moderator well (give them questions in advance if possible, review process and format with them, help them to shape conversations, and do practice runs).
In general, there are two ways to go on moderator selection, 1. a public personality like a journalist, or 2. an experienced league moderator. The journalist type automatically gives you more publicity. Also, if there is a large ethnic group in the area where the forum is being held, consider asking a representative of that group to moderator or introduce the candidates.
On the other hand, the league moderator gives you more control.
3. Follow up with candidates you’ve invited
Confirm all candidates’ attendance. If you’ve not heard back from a candidate, contact again. Let them know which other candidates you expect to attend. Remember you generally need at least two candidates, unless the candidate attending your forum is running unopposed. Request brief bios from candidates to use when introducing them at the forum. Be sure you and your moderator know how to pronounce candi- dates’ names correctly.
4. Strategy for turnout
We can’t say it enough: turnout is everything! Sit down with your planning committee and come up with a strategy for getting people to the forum. Each organization should target their own constituents and members. Get buy-in from community leaders who will agree to promote the forum to their community members. Advertise on your organization’s website and in community newspapers. Be creative and don’t leave any stone unturned!
This is where getting a local newspaper to co-sponsor helps (eg., Olympian) or radio or TV personality (eg., NPR reporter).
Also where there are coalitions with strong interests in the outcome you can contact them and ask for potential questions. Use this as an opening to provide materials about the event and ask them to forward materials to their members.
WITH ONE MONTH TO GO
1. Final confirmation of candidates
Get a confirmation in writing (email is fine) from each participating candidate. This will allow your organization to go forward with the forum even if a candidate cancels at the last minute.
Notify candidates about the format of the forum, the schedule, and other arrangements (e.g., parking, literature table, opportunity for one-on-one contact with voters). Also, if there are foreseeable problems, let the candidates know ahead of time such as if you expect protesters. Failure to share such information might decrease the likelihood that candidates will agree to attend another forum sponsored by your organization.
2. Reconfirm site arrangements
Make sure that your reserved site has all of the accommodations you have requested — including set-up instructions for the room, tables, microphones, etc.
If you have separate arrangements for providing microphones or any other needed equipment from outside vendors, sponsors, or volunteers, confirm these now, as well.
3. Reconfirm volunteers
Remind volunteers of their duties and reconfirm their attendance.
4. Distribute promotional materials
This is a great opportunity to maximize roles for volunteers. Promotional materials should encourage attendance by constituents and might include flyers, mailings within the district and phone calls to important community leaders (e.g., chairperson of neighborhood association).
5. Contact media to promote coverage
Follow up with the media contacts you have made. Let them know about any new developments in the forum, including which candidates have committed to attend. Ask the media source to promote the event in a community events calendar or with a public service announcement. Be prepared to provide promotional materials about your forum and organization upon request.
6. Reconfirm moderator
Reconfirm the event with your moderator. Answer any questions they may have about facilities (podium, microphones, etc.) Ask if there is anything they need to feel comfortable and prepared.
WITH LESS THAN A MONTH TO GO
1. Continue to recruit attendees
Make phone calls, send emails, get local media coverage and knock on doors. Do whatever it takes to ensure turnout. Tailor your message to your organizations constituents as an opportunity for them to bring forth the issues they care about.
2. Contact volunteers to confirm their duties at the forum
Remember that you will need some volunteers to be at the forum earlier than others, depending on their duties. Have a staff member in charge of volunteers for the evening to keep the event running smoothly.
3. Final media reminders and press release
Create a press release to share all information that helps sell your forum as newsworthy to media personnel. For example, if there are questions you have prepared for candidates, share those with media personnel. Follow up with a reminder call one day before the event. Provide media packets that include information on your organization, co-sponsoring organizations and candidate information. This should include forum format as well.
4. Write an op-ed piece
Articulate the importance of informed voting and pitch your forum as a vehicle. This might include issues your organization hopes will be covered at the forum. Be sure to restate the nonpartisan nature of the forum. This should be written by the leader of your organization(s).
5. Select a timekeeper for the event
This should be a confident, politically-savvy person who prioritizes keeping the forum on schedule. When selecting a timekeeper, keep in mind that this person will need to interrupt people in order to keep time. Provide timekeeper color coded cards during the forum for timing: green card = start, yellow card = 30 seconds remain, orange card = 10 seconds remain, red card = stop.
Bells should only be used where a candidate need an audio cue or when the candidate has gone past the red card stop.
ON THE BIG DAY
1. Complete set-up at forum facility
Be sure to allow ample time, staff and volunteers for your set-up needs. Bring nameplates for candidates, the moderator and any other important persons at your forum. Don’t forget to have a table outside the forum for candidates to distribute materials and for co-sponsoring organizations’ materials. Provide plenty of room for media to set up cameras and equipment if you expect them to attend.
2. Have volunteers greet audience and candidates
Have a staff person (or trusted volunteer) assigned to greet and escort each candidate. Identify a point person (typically staff) for volunteers to seek out in case of problems. Have plenty of volunteers to collect audience questions before the event if your format has a Q&A section. Have staff members review the questions for content. Make sure the greeters are not impeding access to the venue.
3. Set-up a head table
Set up a table where candidates will speak from during the forum. Include nameplates, a table skirt and microphone(s).
4. Welcome and thank-yous
Typically, this is the moderator’s job, but it also might be the President or Executive Director. Don’t forget to thank each candidate, co-sponsoring organization, volunteers and staff.
5. Review the ground rules for the forum
Again, this is the moderator’s role and should include reviewing the forum format your organization has pre-selected (see Forum Formats section). Also at this time the moderator reminds the audience of the nonpartisan nature of the event, including that no cheering/shouting will be allowed.
6. Informal Q&A period after the forum
This informal Q&A time after the official forum ends is optional though highly recommended. Even if your forum is formatted to use questions generated by the audience, it is beneficial to provide time after the forum for the audience to ask questions to the candidates informally. Candidates want forums to reach a broad nonpartisan audience. Therefore, they encourage forum sponsors to include Q&A sessions to cover issues that might not arise during the forum.
Use materials such a banners or plaques to advertise the LWV when putting on the event.
Examples of invitations, ground rules, scripts, reminder to the candidates, fliers, program, press release and LWVWA Opening comments are available in the documents.
Not only is it necessary for 501(c)(3) organizations, but it also encourages broad attendance by candidates, more interest from the media and is a powerful tool for engaging your community around the issues that matter to them. Some guidelines from the IRS:
Staying nonpartisan is pretty straight-forward. Here are some more tried-and-true tips from the experts:
Invite all viable candidates for a specific office to your forum and make an equal effort to encourage each of them to attend. Candidates who could not participate in the forum and let us know a reasonable time before the forum were given the opportunity to provide a 250 word statement that was read at the forum. We did not tell them about this opportunity until after they RSVP'd (we had one candidate who did not RSVP at all). The statements were not contained in the handouts at the forum.
If it is a two-candidate race and only one agrees to attend, you should not go forward with your forum. In a multi-candidate race at least two must confirm.
Confirm with candidates! If it is a two-candidate race, and one cancels with very little notice (after having confirmed attendance), or worse—doesn’t show up, you may go forward with the candidate event as planned. Just make sure to announce that this is no way signifies the endorsement of the attending candidate by your organization.
You may want to have one or more staff members in charge of reviewing audience questions before handing them to the moderator. Your forum should avoid any leading questions that point to a desired answer from candidates. It’s ok to ask straightforward questions on the issues as long as you take care to provide some balance across partisan lines. We solicited questions from as many organizations that had an interest in the various offices as we could think of. We also solicited questions form the sponsoring organizations.
Ground Rules Inside the Forum Hall
Partisan Attire: While not required, you may want to ask audience members to check their partisan materials at the door. This means no partisan buttons or apparel. This can help to create a sense of unity and nonpartisanship within the forum hall. The flip side, however, is that sometimes asking people to take their apparel items off can cause an adversarial relationship between the audience and the sponsor(s) from the beginning.
Signs: Ask that signs be left outside of the hall. While buttons on audience members can be ok, not only do partisan signs prevent a unified, collegial relationship in the hall, but signs on sticks can be unintentionally dangerous.
The Audience: In a nonpartisan setting, ask the audience to respectfully refrain from excessive exuberance for or against a particular candidate.
Choose a neutral site for your forum—one that is not associated with any party, candidate or overly partisan issue.
Provide nonpartisan voter guides, voter registration and get-out-the-vote materials for your audience. Have a separate table outside the room of the forum for candidates to place their campaign literature.
Use the forum as a platform to promote the league with appropriate literature.
Co-sponsoring organizations are helpful in several additional ways: logistics, volunteers, name-power, constituents, and more. Gauge the level of involvement from co-sponsor organizations. For example, will the co-sponsors help plan the forum or simply be recognized on press releases? Will they assist in getting their organizational membership to attend the forum? Ideally, candidate forums should reach an audience broader than one organization’s members and co-sponsorship can help recruit participants. If the co-sponsors choose to be involved in planning, establish a planning committee with representatives from each co-sponsoring organization. Once you have gathered a planning committee, create a big to-do list and assign tasks. Everyone should be responsible for turnout!
While selecting partners, sponsors, and co-sponsors is important for turnout (see Better Attendance below), venue cost and advertising, but can send the wrong message to the public if they are not vetted appropriately.
Consideration is selecting
Early in the planning process it was decided to approach all three Law schools in Washington to ask if they would consider holding a Supreme Court forum. An example of the letter sent is in the Documents section.
In 2016 the question of asking for contributions for organizations to be sponsors or co-sponsors did not come up until we were well into the forums and then it was difficult to establish ground rules. Make sure this is sorted before you start so you have an agreed on procedure that is evenly administered. Additionally, the LWVWA Board approved a definition of what constituted a partner, sponsor and co-sponsor. This definition was agreed on midway through the forum process, so it was difficult to apply. This definition is XXXX.
Example request for Co-Sponsorship. A co-sponsors list used in the 2016 forums can be found in the documents.
Recommend that the candidates be told they need to be present for a mic check 30 minutes before the event start. There is no reason for them to be earlier, but if they are late you can still recover. Candidate Day of Instruction example is in the documents section.
All candidates were invited to each forum. Candidates who could not participate in the forum and let us know a reasonable time before the forum were given the opportunity to provide a 250 word statement that was read at the forum. We did not tell them about this opportunity until after they RSVP'd (we had one candidate who did not RSVP at all). The statements were not contained in the handouts at the forum.
Multiple candidates participated in every forum held in 2016, so the question of how to handle an open seat never had to be addressed. This should be agreed upon before the forum cycle starts and possibly conveyed to the candidates. The Minnesota LWV took the position that they would hold the event even if there was only one candidate.
When a candidate RSVP’d they could not come, they were given the opportunity to provide a 250 word statement to be read by the moderator. We did not tell them about the opportunity until AFTER they RSVP’d and the statements were NOT contained in the handouts at the forum. Thank you notes were sent to the candidates after the forums. This can be done by either the local league or the State-Wide Manger. An example is shown in Example Thank You to Candidates.
An Event Recording Guest Release Form example is included in the documents. This was used for the early forums, but we were told that most TV groups don’t bother anymore so we stopped.
What the Candidates Want
It is helpful to have a clear understanding of what the candidates hope for in a nonprofit candidate forum. Use this information to entice candidates to attend.
When selecting a venue there are several considerations. Expected size of the audience, parking availability for the attendees, easy of locating the venue for the audience are all considerations. Cost is a consideration, but, selection of a partner of co-sponsor who can give access for free or a reduced rate worked well for the 2016 venues. Other considerations are the lighting and the acoustics for the audience hearing and seeing the candidates. Also, if the event is being televised, the camera folks may have preferences if they have used the venue previously.
The media plays a critical role in the success of your forum. It might be easiest to think of engaging the media in two equally important stages: publicity before the event as well as coverage at the event:
Media before — draws a crowd, gets you publicity and makes candidates take the forum more seriously.
Media at the event — raises the profile of your nonprofit, raises awareness of the election and the candidates’ positions, makes your organization a source for future stories about the impact of elections on your neighborhood.
HOW TO PUBLICIZE YOUR FORUM
This can go a long way in attracting candidates and media. Chambers of commerce, special interest groups, other elected officials, and religious organizations are usually interested in motivating their members to vote. If they are included in promotion you will reach a broader audience.
Ask various organizations for questions and following up to remind them of the deadline for receiving the questions. Ask them to send out info about the event to their members through their newsletters and mailing lists.
Press releases and fliers were used for the 2016 forums. The most effective was fliers provided to sponsors, co-sponsors and partners and ask them to publicize through their networks. Having more of a web presence may have helped, but we did not have the expertise to do that. Included in the documents are example fliers (see documents below). The LWVWA website also posted the events in a table (Schedule of forums) that linked the reader to the videos after the fact and to the fliers prior to the events. This table was updated frequently as the forums changed and more were added frequently throughout the election season.
Questions were requested from as broad a spectrum of organizations as possible. Requesting the questions gave an opportunity to re contact the organization to remind them of the event and invite them to inform their members about the event. Questions gathered for various state-wide offices can be found in the documents section (I have lots more questions for each office we held a forum for and they can be added if that is thought to be advisable. OSPI Questions, Spokane Judicial questions asked, Lt Gov questions,
YOUR FIRST STEP IN PLANNING
The first thing on your to-do list is selecting the format of your forum. When you decide, remember that it’s important to select the option that BEST meets your community’s needs.
A script was used for all the forums. Example Scripts have been included in the documents. At each forum the LWVWA representative (usually the President) made opening comments, a couple of minutes was given to sponsors, co-sponsors, partners as negotiated ahead. The local LWV representative also made comments and usually introduced the moderator. Many times we had one of the sponsors, co-sponsors, or partners make closing comments.
Audience questions were gathered real time at each event. Blank 3x5 cards were handed out to audience members and picked up by runners. The questions screened by LWV representatives to consolidate and clean up before the questions were conveyed to the moderator on stage. NO questions were allowed to be asked directly from the audience.
Usually the scripted questions were asked first then the moderator used the last 15 minutes or so to ask audience questions. However, in a couple of instances, the moderator decided to ask the audience questions first and then use the scripted questions as filler at the end. While admirable, there were problems. The moderator didn’t really keep track and asked the same questions in a different form more than once and the broader spectrum of questions did not get asked. The audience however liked this approach.
WHAT NOT TO DO IN PLANNING A FORUM
LOOKING FOR SOME HELP FINDING CO-SPONSORS?
Candidate Invitations to Participate
(insert links to example letters)
Ground Rules for Candidate Forums
(insert links to examples)