Convening and Commenting on Debates

With national attention on the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates, it’s a good time to cover the rules for how nonprofits can convene and comment on debates. 

 Our attorneys for this episode 

Tim Mooney 

Jen Powis 

Quyen Tu 



 Public charity 501(c)(3)s can educate candidates and voters. 

  • Many debates are run by 501(c)(3)s. 
  • Example: Commission on Presidential Debates is a 501(c)(3) public charity 
  • Remember 501(c)(3)s cannot support or oppose candidates. 


  • Nonprofits can host debates as an opportunity to educate voters 
  • Candidate education 
  • Host a debate with a coalition 
  • Example from The Coalition for Environment, Equity & Resilience (CEER), a program of Healthy Gulf (c3) & BakerRipley (c3) in Houston 


  • Invite all viable candidates (what is viable) 
  • Prepare questions prior, and ensure an adequate moderator 
  • No candidate pledges 
  • Nonprofits can respond to things said in debates 
  • Fact checking is ok, but not support/opposition to candidates 
  • Be consistent in your language. 
  • Example: Sierra Club, c4? 


  • Consistency and a track record are key. 
  • Best practices: 
  • Think through why responding now helps its advocacy program, 
  • Determine who is permitted to “speak on behalf of the organization,” 
  • Focus on what is said (the issue) and not the candidates themselves, and 
  • Ensure that the facts provided meet the above objectives. 
  • Example: Southern Poverty Law Center (c3) responding to President Trump’s comment about the “Proud Boys” 



Hosting Candidate Debates: Public Charities Can Educate the Community Through Candidate Debates 

Commenting on Candidates and Campaigns: How 501(c)(3)s Can Respond During an Election Year 

Responding During Election Season and Debates 

Sample 501(c)(3) Organizational Policy for Election Season