The Small Nonprofit's Guide to Advocating for Afterschool

If you are facing an election in your community, now is the time to tell the candidates: “I support afterschool, and I vote!” We have the power to make afterschool a key issue in elections at every level—from presidential to congressional and local.

Whether you have the time and resources to run a coordinated, multi-pronged afterschool issue campaign, or you are just looking for some ideas on how to raise the profile of afterschool during election season, this kit can inform your planning, help you assess what you can undertake and hopefully make your job easier.

What do I need? Where do I start?

To execute a campaign to make afterschool an election issue, it is important to understand your community and the election that you are targeting.

You should be able to clearly articulate your goals for the project. This will be especially important when recruiting funders and partners.
We recommend you start locally and, if successful, move to a larger jurisdiction next time. Work with your partners and consider targeting municipal, county, or district elections, which will likely be an effective use of resources. Or, if you determine that state or national offices are most important, target specific aspects of the election, such as securing questions on afterschool in a candidate debate or orchestrating site visits for candidates.
There is little risk to nonprofits participating in a nonpartisan voter and candidate education campaign, if the activities are managed carefully; the goal is to elevate the issue of afterschool, not a particular candidate or political party.
Downloading and familiarizing yourself with the points in our Candidate Resource Guide on Afterschool is a good start. The guide can be sent to all candidates as a primer on the importance of afterschool programs as a campaign issue. Remember, if you send it to one candidate, you must send it to all candidates for a particular office. It is also important to know the political lay of the land in your area. Are statewide or local polling numbers available on afterschool? Do you know where the candidates stand on the issue? If any of them are current office holders, have they sponsored related legislation or signed resolutions?

Two basic communication tools are contact lists and a website. Your contact list will allow you to call or send out blast emails to your supporters and encourage them to take action.At the outset, you and your partners may want to pool your lists to create a master database. You should continue to build this list throughout the campaign by hosting voter registration, public education, and other “list building” events.

A campaign website will allow you to post event and campaign information, conduct polls and allow the general public to find out more about your issue.

Some organizations orchestrate campaigns to raise social issues in every election cycle. Find the organizations in your area whose agendas fit well with yours. Chances are they will be working on a broader issue, such as education or children’s welfare, but will welcome the chance to bring you (and your valuable grassroots contacts and supporters) in as a partner. Some examples of organizations to consider:
  • Children’s Leadership Council
  • Every Child Matters
  • Rock the Vote
  • Universities and public television stations that organize candidate debates and forums.

Remember to approach them early — offering your assistance can help ensure afterschool has a place in the event.

Show me the money!

Identify community trusts, local foundations and other groups that may want to fund an initiative like this. Remember, you are more likely to find funders when you undertake a campaign like this with partners.

The Election Toolkit is filled with information on campaigning; however, you should not feel like you have to complete every step and participate in every recommended activity in order for your efforts to be successful. Pick and choose your strategies based on the time you are able to spend and the resources available—the strategies most effective to help you reach your campaign goals.

The diagram below offers suggestions for how you should focus your efforts depending upon the level of involvement you choose. Participation at any of these levels is a meaningful accomplishment that will help to advance the goal of afterschool for all.

Campaign Timeline

Ongoing: Disseminate your information to staff and candidates and throughout the community, register voters, and add contacts and advocates to your database.
  • May
    1. Identify a local afterschool campaign leader.
    2. Disseminate information about the campaign.
    3. Start to plant the idea of candidate forums addressing various issues related to afterschool programs.
    4. Research dates for future candidate forums/debates.
    5. Organize afterschool volunteers and advocates to attend forums and ask candidates about their position on afterschool—make it a part of the political conversation.
  • June - July
    1. Conduct polls/ surveys to register voter opinions on afterschool.
    2. Organize events and meetings for parents, afterschool staff and other concerned citizens.
    3. Distribute candidate surveys.
  • August
    1. Encourage editorial boards, community newspapers, and local media outlets to focus on afterschool as a key issue in this campaign.
    2. Organize a Lights On Afterschool event planning committee.
  • September
    1. Email or mail the Candidate’s Guide to Afterschool to all candidates for key offices and their advisors.
    2. Propose the idea of debates, issue forums, and town hall meetings with all candidates’ campaigns.
    3. Invite candidates to Lights On Afterschool or other back-to-school events—identify opportunities to “piggyback” on local school district events.
  • October
    1. Host a Lights On Afterschool event.
    2. Mobilize supporters through “get out the vote” (GOTV) materials or events.
    3. Request meetings with editorial boards of local print media outlets to brief them on the importance of afterschool.
    4. Work with high-profile supporters to place op-eds and letters to the editors
  • Early November
    1. GOTV effort should be in full swing—connect and communicate with partners to register all voters.
    2. Continue to make the case to the media and general public that afterschool is a critical issue.
    3. Continue media outreach.
    4. Mobilize advocates and afterschool campaign leaders to increase awareness and outreach activities in their community
  • Election Day
    Depending on resources, many issue campaigns use volunteers to pass out afterschool material and act as a visible proponent of afterschool programs at various poll locations. Be sure to plan ahead and factor the resources into your planning in April and May.
  • Late November - December

    Immediately following the election, organize meetings with your partners and afterschool campaign leaders to discuss what worked and what did not. Document and compile this analysis into a document for use by other advocates around the country. The goal is to make afterschool an issue, not just in your neighborhood, but in communities around the country. By learning from each other, every subsequent campaign may be able to build on the successes while avoiding the mistakes of prior campaigns. Continue to communicate with the new office holder, and become a resource for their transition teams.

Election Guidelines for 501(c)(3) Organizations

It can be confusing to know how you can involve yourself in an election if you work for a nonprofit organization. There are a couple of simple ground rules that you need to follow:

  1. Equal Outreach – all contact with and materials sent to campaigns should be the same for every candidate running for a particular position. For example, if a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian and Independent are all running for mayor, you must send information to all four candidates. If a candidate requests additional information, you may provide materials your organization already has created, but your organization may not create new materials tailored to a candidate’s needs. Document your contact with the candidate. If other candidates reach out to you, you must provide them information that responds to their requests; be responsive to all candidates equally.
  2. Documentation – keep a calendar of each time you reach out to a candidate and every time a candidate contacts you. This will help you keep track of your outreach efforts.

What a 501(c)(3) CAN do

  • Issue advocacy. You may provide information on your issue as you always have – of course, if you think an activity may cross the line into electioneering or political activity, consult a lawyer regarding these rules; remember equal outreach.
  • Invite speakers. If you invite an office holder to an event in their official capacity rather than as a candidate, you don’t need to invite opposing candidates, but make sure the event has a very clear non-election purpose and ensure the speakers do not discuss the election in their remarks.
  • Sponsor a debate between candidates as long as:
    • You invite all qualified candidates;
    • An independent panel prepares the questions;
    • The topics cover a broad range of issues, including those of particular importance to your organization;
    • Every candidate has an equal opportunity to speak;
    • The moderator is neutral and states at the beginning and end of the program that the views expressed are not representative of your organization.
  • Try to persuade candidates to agree with you on issues and to make those issues part of their campaign—but that is as far as you can go; do not ask candidates to sign a “pledge” or other public barometer of support for your organization’s issues.
  • Work to get your positions included on a political party’s platform by:
    • Delivering testimony to both parties’ platform committees;
    • Including a disclaimer in both oral and written testimony that the testimony is being offered for educational purposes only;
    • Reporting the testimony and any responses in your regularly scheduled newsletter to members.
  • Operate a nonpartisan voter registration or “get out the vote” drive. Note that “get out the vote” activities must be designed solely to educate the public about the importance of voting and must not show any bias for or against any candidate or party. In a voter registration drive, voters must be registered regardless of their party preference or their support (or lack thereof) for your organization’s issues. Do not ask where voters stand on an issue before offering to register them.

What a 501(c)(3) CAN NOT do

  • Support specific candidates or parties in races for elected office, including:
    • Support or oppose a declared candidate or third-party movement;
    • Conduct efforts to “draft” someone to run;
    • Conduct exploratory advance work.
  • Endorse a candidate or contribute to a campaign with money or time:
    • Members can, of course, donate or volunteer on their own time.
  • Contribute any cash or in-kind support:
    • Includes loans or paying to attend partisan political dinners;
    • An in–kind contribution is considered providing anything of value to a candidate, political party or political organization when you are not paid the fair market value in return.
    • Creating new materials in response to a candidate’s request for information may constitute an in-kind contribution. For example, while it is fine to provide a candidate with an existing research report or brochure regarding a particular issue in response to their request for information, an organization may not write a speech or op-ed for that candidate to use.
  • Send partisan political communications to their members or employees telling them how to vote.
  • Sponsor joint fundraising events or solicitations with candidates or a political group.
  • Ask candidates to sign a public endorsement of your organization’s agenda.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can an organization state its position on public policy issues that candidates for public office are divided on?

An organization may take positions on public policy issues, including issues that divide candidates in an election for public office, as long as the message does not in any way favor or oppose a candidate. Be aware that the message does not need to identify the candidate by name to be prohibited political activity. A message that shows a picture of a candidate, refers to a candidate’s political party affiliations, refers to an election, or includes other distinctive features of a candidate’s platform or biography may be prohibited political activity.

Can an organization post information on its website (or link to other websites) about a candidate for public office?

A website is a form of communication. If an organization posts something on its website that favors or opposes a candidate for public office, it is prohibited political activity. It is the same as if the organization distributed printed material, or made oral statements or broadcasts that favored or opposed a candidate.

If an organization establishes a link to another website, it is responsible for the consequences of establishing and maintaining that link even if the organization does not have control over the content on the linked site. Because the linked content may change, the organization should monitor the linked content and adjust or remove any links that could result in prohibited political activity.