Engaging in Elections as a 501(c)(3): Advocates Share Insights
August 10, 2018

Photo courtesy of Belmont University


As the 2018 election cycle heats up, education advocates across the nation are paying close attention. In fact, many PIE Network members have been actively engaged in the process for months. Whether it is the governor, state legislators, or local boards of education, so much of what state-level advocates are able to accomplish comes down to the individuals who hold elected office.

However, engaging in the electoral process can be a daunting endeavor, and for many organizations, choosing not to engage is a strategy in itself. For those that do wade in, picking the wrong side in a political campaign can at best mean having to work overtime rebuilding a relationship in order to maintain influence with an elected official, or at worst mean not having any influence at all. This political risk, coupled with the tax benefits of being a 501(c)(3), can inform thinking around how organizations structure their work.

Under the federal tax code, 501(c)(3) organizations are restricted in how they can engage in the political process—they are prohibited from endorsing or opposing candidates for elected office.

But within the Network, some organizations have found creative and powerful ways to engage with the electoral process.

Below, state-level advocates from across the Network share insights into how they effectively engage with elections, all in service of improving education for all students.

Focusing on Candidate Development in Minnesota

Over the past five years, Educators for Excellence-Minnesota members have collectively organized towards legislative policy changes, establishing an impressive track record of success at the legislature. Though E4E-Minnesota describes the changes as meaningful, they also recognize it is incremental change in a system that requires more radical shifts.  

This led E4E-Minnesota to step back and evaluate how to expand their impact beyond the incremental policy shifts they were seeing at the capitol. According to executive director Madaline Edison, “We recognized that each year, our uphill battle to pass these changes had to do with the difficulty in convincing entrenched political leaders and education stakeholders to consider new ways of operating.”

“This realization, coupled with our desire to see longer-lasting, more dramatic change, led us to the conclusion that changing who sits in the decision-making positions, whether that was at the legislature, at the school board, in union positions, or beyond was an important path forward,” Edison said.

In response, E4E-Minnesota launched a candidate cultivation program called Leadership for Equity in Action Pipeline (LEAP), which aims to recruit, train, and develop teachers as candidates for elected and appointed office—including union officer roles, school board, legislature, and beyond.

The ultimate goal of the training is for the graduates of this program to commit to running for office in the near future.

E4E-Minnesota set goals for recruiting a cohort which included diversity of representation of teachers across lines of race, experience level, geography, and leadership goals, and in spring 2018, selected the inaugural cohort of 21 leaders.

“As we embark upon this journey alongside these 21 amazing leaders over the course of the next year, we will learn much more about what it takes to effectively develop and support candidates before they launch campaigns someday in the future,” Edison said. “We hope that this new generation of leaders, drawing upon their diverse backgrounds and perspectives within the classroom and beyond, will advance student-centered and innovative policies to solve our most pressing social issues.”  

Colorado: Steering Focus Toward the Economic Impact of School Improvement

Heading into the 2018 gubernatorial election season as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, Colorado Succeeds felt well positioned to provide voters, business leaders, and the candidates themselves with important research and education around what it would take to make Colorado schools the best in the country. Together with 20 business partners, Colorado Succeeds launched a Business Guide for Colorado’s Next Governor, full of resources for business leaders and voters, at large, to understand the economic impact of improving Colorado schools.

Through economic research in partnership with the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, Colorado Succeeds found that if Colorado students obtained the levels of education needed to compete in today’s economy, 57,600 more students with post-secondary education would result in $1 billion in new revenue and public savings, the creation of over 14,600 new jobs, and over a $12 billion increase in Colorado’s GDP (over span of 10 years). And through a survey of Colorado employers, they found that 86 percent find the skills gap a threat to their business.

Additionally, Colorado Succeeds’ polling showed Colorado voters and employers were aligned on the top strategies to move Colorado forward: attracting and retaining effective educators, providing career/technical training and work-based learning, developing applied and workplace learning skills, and developing computer and digital literacy. The statewide polling also found that education is a top tier issue for voters.

Ahead of Colorado’s June primaries, the coalition secured participation from seven of the eight gubernatorial candidates to complete a candidate survey, providing voters with a vital resource to understand where the candidates stand on education issues.

Advocates found that Coloradans were hungry for the information—the web-based voter guide received nearly 20,000 pageviews in two months.

Six of the eight candidates also participated in a May event featuring the economic impact data, and were able to describe their vision for improving education.

Moving forward, Colorado Succeeds is calling on the general election candidates to put Colorado Succeeds’ vision for the future of education—Vision 2030—into action so their state can rise to the challenge. Ultimately, Colorado Succeeds’ advocacy has helped keep important education and economic issues at the forefront of candidates’ and voters’ minds.

“By elevating the importance of education throughout the gubernatorial election, Colorado Succeeds, the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, and our 19 business partners have helped ensure that education issues are addressed early and often throughout the entire campaign season,” said Scott Laband, Colorado Succeeds president. “This includes offering education questions to debates across the state and pushing the candidates to think deeply about the topic and their vision.”

Keeping Voters Informed in Ohio

As Chad Aldis explains, though election outcomes can directly impact the ability of an organization to achieve its policy aims, the risk of crossing the line and violating nonprofit law can lead to advocates simply ignoring campaigns.

According to Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute-Ohio, “As bold as Fordham is on policy issues, we tend to be very careful to steer clear of anything with even an appearance of being election-related. Nevertheless, our gadfly role in Ohio necessitates taking steps to ensure that the public and policy makers are aware of each of the gubernatorial candidates’ positions on education issues.”

Ahead of Ohio’s primary election, Fordham-Ohio advocates analyzed and described the content of each candidate’s website and any education position statements they’d made. They didn’t offer commentary on any candidate’s views, but did include a collection of sixteen education policy questions that any prospective governor should be prepared to answer.

As the field of candidates narrowed, they also published follow up “in their own words” pieces for both Democrats and Republicans. These were collections of education quotes—again, without commentary from Fordham—culled from months of news clippings and other public statements. Aldis acknowledges that such narrowly crafted pieces aren’t “earth-shaking.”

“But if your organization finds itself wanting to do something to educate your constituents without immersing itself in the ins and outs of campaign laws and nonprofit regulations, they present a safe approach to raising awareness.”

Tennessee: Emphasizing Student-Focused Policymaking & Building Consensus

Tennessee advocates echoed the importance of finding effective ways to engage with elections, while also respecting nonprofit boundaries. According to Taylor Hall, senior director of advocacy and government relations at the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), the most important aspect of candidate engagement is fairness.

“When 501(c)(3) organizations choose to engage with candidates, they should make sure policy, not politics, stays at the forefront of all discussions,” Hall said.

With this framework in mind, SCORE’s candidate engagement work leading up the 2018 election has been aimed at emphasizing student-focused education policymaking and building the consensus that Tennessee needs to keep its foundation of reforms and build up from there. Engagement happened on many levels, with SCORE positioned as a nonpartisan expert on student-focused education policy.

One year before the primaries, SCORE released a poll of likely voters to measure their interest in education. About a year before the general election, SCORE collaboratively identified five priorities for continued academic achievement growth over the next eight years in a vision report titled Excellence For All: How Tennessee Can Lift Our Students To Best In The Nation. Every major candidate was provided a briefing from SCORE on the poll findings and the report. SCORE also facilitated one-on-one and group meetings for the candidates with educators.

Finally, the centerpiece of SCORE’s engagement was a bipartisan gubernatorial forum in January 2018, organized in partnership with 35 Tennessee education organizations and two major news organizations.

“Throughout the campaign, education remained a top issue that was consistently discussed by candidates from both political parties, and candidates were actively seeking input from SCORE about education policy for the future,” Hall said.

“The Gubernatorial Forum on Education, and all of the work leading up to the event, set the stage for a thoughtful discussion on education policy throughout the campaign.”

Looking to connect with other 501c3 organizations on election engagement? Reach out.


    Ryan Cantrell

    Ryan is PIE Network's Senior Director, Charters, Choice, and Political Engagement

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