The first step to running for office — or even deciding whether or not to run — is telling 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 in your life that have defined you. If you are having trouble with your story, start with your “why” – the issues that motivate you, the community you want to serve — and work backwards, explaining why these things mean so much to you, personally.
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!
Here’s what you’ll hear:
- 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.
- Fundraising can be especially difficult as a local candidate without the support of many of the biggest PACs and fundraising organizations.
We understand. Here’s what successful fundraisers know:
It’s not about money.
Well, of course, it is, but not in the way we think. It’s about getting two people on the same side of the fence working toward something they both want to see happen. Not asker and giver, but partners working toward the same goal. Ask open-ended questions if you can. Then listen carefully to the answers.
It’s about giving people a vision of a future they want to see.
People invest most in a vision of the future. Your qualifications are important, but less so right up front. Before you get to money, be sure you’ve aligned with the things you have in common with the people you talk to, giving them something first: Hope. Ideas. Confidence.
Raising funds is also about giving people a chance to know, like, and trust you.
Your potential supporters will respond best now and down the road if they can say to a friend, with pride, that they know you. They won’t say that unless they like and trust you. So, first, make friends. Then talk investment in shared goals.
If you’re in the conversation, make it worthwhile, for both parties.
Some people will give a little to get out of an awkward situation. It’s wryly termed “Shut up and go away money.” If someone approached you for the last $50 of a $2500 scholarship for a worthy kid, you might fish for more than the $25 you were planning to offer. So let them know what the gift will mean in the scheme of things – something specific it will buy or accomplish – something for which they can feel personal involvement and pride.
After laying the groundwork each time you reach out – which can be done in a few minutes with a little practice and an authentic approach – it becomes more intuitive to ask for their help getting to where they – and you – want to go.
And please remember one last piece of political fundraising wisdom…
If you’re talking to people, once you’ve asked, be quiet. Let the person you’re talking to answer. People will reach deeper into their hearts and minds if you let them speak for themselves. That’s where generosity begins.
The bottom line: you absolutely can do this!
Check out these helpful resources…
- 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.
- Technology provider, 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, personal meetings, and online & direct mail solicitations.
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 make the most difference to me? What issues are particularly important to my community? Answering these questions will give you a sense of what problems you want to solve and which ones you may want to include in your campaign platform.
The next step is simple: what are your positions on the issues you’ve identified? What’s your vision of the best outcome for each? And how will you get there?
Talk to some former elected officials or previous candidates and see what you can learn and possibly add to your thinking. Before you know, it, Voila! you have your campaign platform!
Budgeting for campaigns isn’t always easy or straightforward, especially if you have limited budgeting experience. But fear not -- we have a few recommendations!
First, begin by breaking your campaign costs down into categories and specific items that go under them. Within your budget, you will 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,” and “office space (including rent and utilities).” Communications might include “digital marketing,” “signs,” and “website.”
Second, use campaign finance disclosures from recent elections to guide you! These records are publicly available. They can give you a sense of how much investment is required for the office you seek. These are especially helpful when budgeting for items like TV ads or mail campaigns, which may be trickier to estimate 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 world of resources on running for office, including this guide. We particularly appreciate the 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, learned about fundraising, and developed a platform… but how do you communicate your story and platform with voters?
Campaign communication is multi-faceted, and involves a variety of communication channels. You’ll knock on 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 social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram in your personal life, you will need to be present on social media 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 what you stand for.
To run for office, you’ll need to create a website that tells your story and showcases your issues and ideas. You’ll also need to establish a presence on several social media outlets, 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 issues. 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 feature! Social media can show voters what you are doing from day to day and give them a chance to talk back and forth with you or the campaign on everything from small potatoes to the occasional hot potatoes.
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 talking to 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 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 covers 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.
Fortunately, tremendous resources are 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 groups 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!
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 in a nation like ours. Learning to navigate and work across differences — whether of ideology, identity, or philosophy — is the cornerstone of effective governance, and profoundly enriches our lives.
We know that working across differences can be difficult — and believe that you are up to the challenge, especially when provided with resources to help you 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.
Your community is your home, and you’re likely running for office because you want to address issues in it. But addressing local needs can be challenging, particularly around sensitive issues that involve numerous stakeholders. While we don’t have a playbook for addressing complex scenarios, these resources, along with those provided above, 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.