Telling your story:
The first step to running for office -- or even deciding whether or not to run -- is articulating your story. Who are you, and what can you bring to the table? Why are you running for office?
When developing your story, remember to be true to yourself! For some, it may be helpful to start out by trying to describe yourself, your leadership style, and your greatest strengths. For others, you may want to begin by journaling about some of the moments of your life that have defined you. If you can clearly articulate why you want to run but are having trouble with your story, start with your why -- the issues that motivate you, the community you want to serve -- and work backwards!
While there is no one right way to develop your story and voice, here are some of our favorites resources to help guide you through the process:
She Should Run, which was initially founded as a program of the Women’s Campaign Fund, is a non-partisan organization that provides resources and training to women candidates. The She Should Run Incubator is a set of free online courses that helps women candidates to develop practical skills for their run for public office. The Incubator provides guidance on cultivating leadership, building networks, fostering communication, and identifying your pathways to success. We love their guidance on developing your story and voice!
NationBuilder offers a comprehensive course, aptly named “How to run for office,” which walks you through practical lessons in developing your campaign, including information on calculating your vote goal, understanding your district, finding your supporters, creating a contact plan, finding volunteers, and much more. For help with storytelling, we suggest taking a look at their StoryBuilding Guide, and their super-helpful worksheet on telling your story.
Fundraising is often cited as one of the biggest barriers to women running for office -- WCF was founded to help women overcome these challenges in 1974! For most people, fundraising is hard. Asking for money from family and friends, even those who support you tirelessly, can be challenging, and asking strangers for money can be even harder. It can be especially difficult as a local candidate without the support of many of the biggest PACs and fundraising organizations. But we’re here to remind you that you can absolutely do it, and to give you some helpful resources, too!
IGNITE is an organization committed to fostering political ambition and power in young women to build a pipeline for the women leaders of our future! While much of their work focuses on college-aged women, their webinar program has something for everyone (check out their webinars on self-care for political leaders and developing a strong “inner game” to support your run for office!). For some stellar advice on digital fundraising and cultivating a small donor network, check out their two-part webinar, “Harness the power of digital fundraising & small-dollar donors.” For Part I, click here. For Part II, click here.
NGP VAN produced this awesome guide on the basics of fundraising for a political campaign, which covers topics including: developing a finance plan (with tangible fundraising goals and strategies), building a fundraising network, and raising money through fundraising events, call time and personal meetings, and online & direct mail solicitations.
Creating your platform:
For many candidates, this will be the easiest part of preparing for a campaign launch. Chances are, if you’re running for local office, it’s because you are passionate about issues in your community!
To develop your campaign platform, you might want to ask yourself: what issues am I passionate about? What issues are particularly important to my community? Answering these questions will give you a sense of what issues you may want to include in your campaign platform. The next step is simple: what are your positions on the issues you’ve identified?
Once you’ve identified the issues you want to prioritize, and staked out your positions, voila: you have your campaign platform!
Budgeting for campaigns:
Budgeting for campaigns isn’t always easy or straightforward, especially if you have limited experience designing budgets. But fear not -- we have a few recommendations to help!
First, remember that like any other budget, you want to begin by breaking your campaign budget down into categories and specific line-items. Within your budget, you should have broad categories, like operations, communications, voter outreach, and fundraising. Within each one of those categories, identify all of the things on which your campaign may want to spend money. For example, under the category of “operations,” you may include items like “staff salaries,” “office space (including rent and utilities),” and “website.”
Second, use campaign finance disclosures from recent elections to guide you! These records are publicly available, and can give you a sense of how much past candidates have spent when running for the position you want. These are especially helpful when budgeting for items like “television ads” or “direct mail campaigns,” that may be harder to estimate a cost for than something like office space. Pay particular attention to the disclosures of successful campaigns, and consider which past elections most closely mirror your own!
Candidate Boot Camp provides a ton of resources on running for office, including this guide on how to run for office in 2019. We particularly appreciate their breakdown of a campaign budget, where they dive into the many budget items you should consider when trying to budget for a campaign!
I always considered myself shy. When I decided to run for office, two of my closest friends laughed uproariously. They said, “You realize you have to talk to people to win?” But I quickly learned that talking to voters is not about me, it’s about them. I can’t serve you if I don’t know what you need, so I have to find out.
- Stacey Abrams, politician and former gubernatorial candidate
You’ve decided you’re going to run, identified your story, and developed a platform… but how do you communicate your story and platform with voters?
Campaign communication is multifaceted, and involves a variety of communication channels: you’ll knock doors, appear at events, make speeches, establish an online presence, and work with the media. Seem like a lot? Don’t worry-- we have your back!
Establishing an online presence:
Even if you prefer to stay away from Facebook or Instagram in your personal life, you will need to be present on social media platforms to run a successful political campaign. Your digital presence is more important now than ever: a voter may never meet you in person, and will look for you online to learn more about you and your platform.
To run for office, you’ll need to create a website that tells your story and showcases your platform. You’ll also need to establish a presence on several social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Your website should be informative; it’s the first place voters will turn for information about you, and should include your candidate bio and your platform. Your social media, on the other hand, should showcase your personality and act as a snapshot for your campaign, with pictures from campaign events, behind-the-scenes moments, and any other material you want to showcase!
Sprout Social offers a comprehensive social media guide for political campaigns, with information on budgeting, analytics, strategy, and more.
Joanne Sweeney is a digital marketing and social media consultant, and a former candidate for public office. Her blog post for the Digital Training Institute offers some fantastic advice on executing a social media campaign.
Cosmo teamed up with How to Run for Office to publish a series on women in office. We particularly like this piece, 12 Absolutely Essential Things You Should Know About Running For Office, which offers some great campaign advice from politicians and political strategists.
Working with the media:
Working with the media is an essential part of any campaign, but can be very intimidating for candidates who don’t have experience working with journalists. It’s important to keep in mind that the media you’ll be interacting with will most likely not be CNN or the New York Times -- you’ll be interacting with your local, statewide, or regional outlets, where the reporters you’ll be speaking to will likely be members of your community. Just like anyone else, reporters are people who want to feel respected and valued, and who appreciate basic kindness and courtesy! Treat journalists like you would any other person you meet in day-to-day life, and remember that most aren’t out to get you, they’re out to get a good story that helps their audience understand important issues, people, and ideas.
A key concept of good media relations is to be proactive, as well as responsive to media inquiries. One of the most important things you can do to be proactive is to research topics in your community that interest you and become familiar with the journalists who cover them. Read/view a journalist’s stories on the topic, then branch out and explore more of that person’s work. What do they care about, know about, have a lot of experience in? The more you know about the person who can help you reach an audience, the more targeted your information for that person can be -- and the better the story that results for both of you. Again, this is good human relations first and foremost.
The National Democratic Institute* provides some amazing resources (like this Campaign Skills Guide) for candidates on all sorts of topics. We found this guide, Building a Communications Strategy: Tactics, Tools and Techniques for Reaching your Audiences, particularly helpful. The guide delves into the different types of media, how to prioritize outlets to reach your target audience, and more!
* Note: the NDI is an internationally focused non-partisan group, and invokes the use of “Democratic” in the sense of “democracy,” rather than the US political party
Resources at the local level:
There are a tremendous amount of resources available to candidates at all levels of government, but sometimes, it can be hard to know where to begin!
We highly recommend Pinpoint, a free tool from She Should Run, to find organizations that can help you! With Pinpoint, you can search for organizations and filter based on your location, political affiliation, communities of interest, topics of interest, and more!
Working across differences:
Running for office -- and governing, once you have the job -- is a challenge made all the more complex by the diversity of our experiences and identities. Learning to navigate and work across differences -- whether differences of ideology, identity, or philosophy -- is a challenge that is the cornerstone to effective government, and profoundly enriches our lives.
We know that working across differences is difficult -- and believe that you are up to the challenge, especially when provided with resources to help you work across differences to reach common understanding!
We love this piece from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, “10 Tips for Getting People to Talk Across Political Differences,” which offers impactful advice for how to bridge divides to have productive conversations. For a deeper dive, explore the rest of the series, “Bridging Differences.” We particularly like this piece on finding common ground.
We also love this keynote address by Caroline Smith, an entrepreneur and community organizer in New Haven, Connecticut, delivered at the Student and Alumni of Yale Leadership Forum. Smith shares some of the lessons she’s learned through her experiences as a community organizer and entrepreneur, with a focus on building trust, working across differences, and leading effectively through it all.
Addressing issues in your community:
Your community is your home, and you’re likely running for office because you want to address issues in your community. But addressing community issues can be challenging, particularly around sensitive issues that involve numerous stakeholders. While there isn’t a playbook for addressing complex issues, these resources, along with those resources provided above to find common ground and bridge divides, will be helpful to any leader navigating issues within their communities.
Weave: the Social Fabric Project, is a program of the Aspen Institute focused on “renewing America’s social fabric.” The program website provides valuable tools for community leaders - we recommend their guides to productive, community-minded discourse.
Convergence is a non-profit organization focused on solving social challenges through collaboration. We love their guide “Tips for Successful Dialogue,” which lists practical steps to assist individuals or groups working to find solutions to critical public issues.
Run for Office - This website allows you to enter your address to see what public office positions are available in your area, including election date and filing window. It also includes information on the positions available and how to apply.
She Should Run - She Should Run is a non-partisan organization that provides resources and training for women candidates, and works to build the pipeline for women officeholders. The Incubator is a set of online courses to help you develop practical skills and give context for what matters most through the lens of public service.
Run for Something - Run for Something recruits and supports young diverse progressives to run for down-ballot races in order to build a bench for the future, and aims to lower the barriers to entry for these candidates by helping them with seed money, organization building, and access to trainings.
Running Start - Running Start offers high school and college programs, along with mentorship opportunities. Their training programs are focused on educating young women about leadership, campaign strategy, and teamwork, without a partisan lens.
Gender on the Ballot - Gender on the Ballot is an initiative of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Women & Politics Institute at American University to provide resources, including research on women running for office, as well as original polling related to the 2020 elections. Includes everything from likability & electability to sex, bipartisanship, and collaboration.
IGNITE National - IGNITE is a non-partisan organization encouraging young women to become part of the next generation of political leaders.