Concerns About Health Care Cut Through

Today I’m in Dayton to meet with some folks at the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute. One of the things we’ll be talking about is an online version of an issue guide about how we can pay for health care in America.

Last weekend I led a candidate training program run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. One of the sessions was a mock interview, where candidates were grilled by a panel of professional, veteran reporters. The reporters are there to ask as hard a set of questions as possible.

One candidate is a physician and is running on health care issues. It was very interesting to watch how this changed the demeanor of the reporters — at least for one of them (the one who previously had been the most confrontational). This reporter became immediately interested in a conversation that went in-depth into the give-and-take and tradeoffs behind a number of choices facing Americans today.

Just a few minutes before, this reporter had criticized a candidate bluntly for a gaffe. Suddenly he had become a thoughtful, meditative  interlocutor.

I don’t know why this happened, but it struck me. Maybe health care is an issue that cuts through even the most hard-bitten and can spur thoughtful dialogue.

What other issues might do the same?

Free Advice To Candidates

Last weekend I led a candidate training program run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. I’ve been doing this for a while now. At the end of it, I was reminded of a post I wrote for Rockville Central some time ago, which I have spruced up a bit and am reprinting here:

Free Advice

By Brad Rourke

In the spirit of public service, I wanted to offer some free campaign advice to all candidates. This advice is worth exactly what you are paying for it.

January 2009 Candidate Training Class. Two have already won office.
January 2009 Candidate Training Class. Two have already won office.

Since the late 1990’s, I have been involved with a nonpartisan candidate training program at UVA’s Sorensen Institute geared towards first-time candidates. I was just a small part of it. The program brings in campaign experts in a variety of areas (mail, polling, communications, GOTV, etc.) who offer their wisdom to a group of mixed Democrat and Republican (and some Indepenendent) candidates. Over the course of a great number of training sessions, I have gleaned a few lessons from listening to the presenters and also from talking with the many, many candidates in the rooms. (Especially the ones who had already lost a race and were trying again.)

In my experience, many people who run for local office seem a little bit daunted by the process. Others go the opposite direction and act as if they are running for President. Neither approach results in a very successful campaign.

Local campaigns should be fun. These are our neighbors, telling us about what they think is important for our communities, and arguing over the best way forward. What could be more of a hoot?

I am offering these tips in the spirit of helpfulness to all candidates. They are not hard-and-fast rules. I am not a campaign consultant; these are just things I have picked up by osmosis along the way. Take them or leave them. Tell me I’m all wet (or think it to yourself).

In no particular order:

  1. Most incumbents win re-election. Sorry, it’s true. Challengers have the deck stacked against them. Okay, now you know this. Move on.
  2. Most first-time candidates lose. Sorry, it’s true. Persevere anyway.
  3. You must know how many votes you need to win. If you do not have a written plan for how you will get that number of votes, you are planning to lose.
  4. Know who and where your voters are. Get the voter list. Work it. The person who knocks on the most doors of voters will usually win.
  5. If you cannot bring yourself to ask friends and family to make a financial investment in your candidacy, you should seriously rethink whether being a candidate is for you.
  6. You cannot be your own campaign manager. Find someone to do it for you. It can be for free. Then, let them do their job.
  7. Mailings are worthwhile. Don’t do them too early.
  8. Many companies make a lot of money selling unnecessary goods and services to small campaigns. Watch your spending.
  9. Lawn signs do not help you get elected. Put up only enough to seem credible. Don’t be a jerk: Take them down after the election.
  10. Don’t buy emery boards, pot holders, magnets, or hats. They are a waste. T-shirts are only good if you can get a number of supporters to wear them at the same time. (Like at a parade.) Don’t give them away; supporters should pay for them.
  11. Buttons are nice for the wearer, but little stickers get the job done just as well for cheaper.
  12. Television and radio advertising for local candidates is generally not worthwhile. You can’t afford enough repetition to make a dent and you don’t know you are reaching actual voters.
  13. You need only the bare minimum on the Web; do not spend time and resources on a fancy web site. But it should not be an embarrassment – people look to your web site to check you out and see where you stand.
  14. Know who the two or three reporters who are covering your race are. Treat them with respect and get to know them. Remember their job is to write news stories, not just publish your press releases.
  15. Do not ever, ever lie. You will be found out.
  16. Know and follow all the rules and laws. Make sure there is someone paying attention to that for you…but you are responsible.
  17. Google yourself twice a day, morning and night. Create a Google alert for your name and other important keywords. Study your opponents’ web sites.
  18. Don’t get caught up in the excitement of speaking to large groups of people unless you know for sure they are possible voters in your district. It does you no good to ask voters in another district to vote for you.
  19. Always present yourself as if you are in office. People expect you to look like a grown-up. Dress up a little. Don’t wear goofy stuff.
  20. At receptions and events, don’t be photographed with a glass in your hand.
  21. Always thank people and be gracious.
  22. If you are going to be on TV, do not wear a white shirt or one with a teeny pattern.
  23. Yes, issues matter, but people are voting for a person. Let them get to know you. Don’t hide behind a bunch of white papers and position statements.

Well, that’s about it. You may have other ideas. Add to them!

What's On Your "Stop Do" List?

Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, recently spoke to gathered YMCA’s and gave a chilling overview of the nonprofit sector:

Early on in the crisis, we argued about whether the problem would be short- or long-term, about whether we could simply limp through to a resumption of what we’ve come to understand as normalcy. No longer. We are indisputably in the midst of profound structural shifts that will carry deep and enduring effects. There has been a fundamental breakdown in those systems that serve as the thermostat for much of our daily lives – not just in whether we can get a bank to make a loan, but also in the nature of the regulatory environment, the role of government investment, the need to manage against scarcity.

The nonprofit landscape of yesterday or today will not be the nonprofit landscape of tomorrow. Undercapitalization, chronically a problem, will become a death spiral. When revenues decline by 10 or even 20 percent, a nonprofit can put itself on a diet of discipline and flexibility and emerge at the other end with its mission pretty much intact. When demand skyrockets and revenues decline by 40 or 50 percent, however, you’re a different organization altogether.

An Honest To God Guillotine by Flickr user Augapfel
"An Honest To God Guillotine" by Flickr user Augapfel

This is the best description I have yet seen about the gravity of the new reality nonprofits face. Many nonprofits wonn’t be able to just belt-tighten their way out of it. They will have to change fundamentally or perish.

It is much like the defense industry in the earlly 1990’s, when the chief revenue source (the US government) fundamentally changed how it operated. Defense firms perished, merged, or retooled.

The good news is that, on the other side, the surviving organizations can be far more robust and effective than they were going into the crisis.

Even in good times, when I advise clients that are going through strategic planning, I tell them that no strategic plan is really complete without a “stop do” list. You really haven’t made the tough decisions unless you have included things that you are not going to do anymore.

But at times like this, when we’re in the “death spiral” that Rapson describes, it’s even more important. Organizations simply cannot afford to expend extraneous energy.

Here’s one way to think about it. Start with those things that only your organization can or is willing to do. Put everything else on the chopping block.

Here is how Rapson describes the questions that Kresge is facing:

Foundations . . . also need to ask themselves where their uniquely flexible resources can make the greatest difference. Is it in investing organization-by-organization in those elements of the safety net infrastructure that touch people directly? Or is it in putting money into efforts to change systems that bear so heavily on people’s life opportunities?

The answer to this question will drive very different day-to-day responses. Nonprofits can ask similar questions of themselves. Indeed, they must.

So what’s on your “stop do” list? What can your organization uniquely do?

Are There Projects You Should Let Go?

I used to direct a project that accounted for more than 2/3 of the revenue stream of my organization. It was a big, high-profile, multi-year initiative that we were understandably rather proud (and fond) of.

But the effort was only tangentially related to the organization’s core mission.

By Flickr user Auntie Shadrach
By Flickr user Auntie Shadrach

I remember a number of times the thought crossed my mind, “We should kill this. It’s distorting our operations.” Which was silly, in some respects, because I would have been firing myself.

Eventually, the initiative went away of its own accord, the victim of a passing fad in foundation grantmaking. 

Many years later, the organization is thriving, but it took a bit of time. 

Looking back, I still think I was right. While the organization got some good visibility out of the project, it sucked up management attention and resources that other efforts could have used. We should not have taken the job and, once we did have it, we should have used a natural break-point to end it.

How many projects are you working on that are off-mission or off-topic for you? Why don’t you kill them? Are there clients you should fire, foundations you should let go? 

Do it! Make room for something better.