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.
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:
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.
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:
Most incumbents win re-election. Sorry, it’s true. Challengers have the deck stacked against them. Okay, now you know this. Move on.
Most first-time candidates lose. Sorry, it’s true. Persevere anyway.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mailings are worthwhile. Don’t do them too early.
Many companies make a lot of money selling unnecessary goods and services to small campaigns. Watch your spending.
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.
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.
Buttons are nice for the wearer, but little stickers get the job done just as well for cheaper.
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.
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.
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.
Do not ever, ever lie. You will be found out.
Know and follow all the rules and laws. Make sure there is someone paying attention to that for you…but you are responsible.
Google yourself twice a day, morning and night. Create a Google alert for your name and other important keywords. Study your opponents’ web sites.
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.
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.
At receptions and events, don’t be photographed with a glass in your hand.
Always thank people and be gracious.
If you are going to be on TV, do not wear a white shirt or one with a teeny pattern.
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!
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.
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?
Today I am giving a presentation for a group convened by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. But since I’ve already written about them (more than once), I thought I would let you know instead about an exciting conference I will be presenting at later in July.
It’s “No Better Time: Promising Opportunities in Deliberative Democracy for Educators and Practitioners.” It’s from July 8-11 at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Register here.
I admit the title may sound a bit dry. But it’s going to be very cool!
Why? Because this field — “civic engagement,” “participation,” “deliberative democracy” — is on fire, that’s why! A number of threads are coming together that make this so, not the least of which is the fact that the White House just opened an office of public engagement.
The other reason it’ll be a hoot is that there are great “learning exchanges” planned. These are not your normal breakout sessions. They are meant to be highly interactive and useful — the “leaders” are really there to frame up some questions and then step back and let the magic happen.
Anyway, I will be one of the people leading a learning exchange on Thursday morning:
A tech-savvy citizenry: New media for public participation, policy deliberation, and social change
Facebook and other social networks. Online video. Twitter. Online neighborhood forums. Technology is already reshaping deliberative democracy. What are the most promising tools and resources now available, and where is the potential for future innovation? What technologies work best for local democracy, for national democracy, for community organizing, and so on? In this session, we’ll examine what’s hot, what’s tried and true, and what’s tried – and failed. We’ll also consider the kinds of skills citizens need – and students should acquire – in order to be active participants in a tech-savvy democracy.
I am proud to be co-leading this with Joe Peters, of Ascentum and with my friend Michael Weiksner, who founded e-thepeople.org.
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.
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?
President Obama made big news among the community engagement field when yesterday he announced the creation of the White House Office of Public Engagement. This is actually a re-tasking of the already-existing Office of Public Liaison, augmenting and building its role.
The idea is to have a dedicated office at the highest level of government that is in charge of connecting people and their concerns with policy. If ever there were a tangible example of what happens when someone who sees himself as a “community organizer” becomes president, this is it. Indeed, President Obama mentions this in his introductory video:
No ssoner had the news spread among colleagues in the engagement field, than the comments began to fly. I was saddened to see that most of the ones I saw, initially, seemed like sour grapes. People pored over the roster of leaders of the office, asking, “who are these people?” The subtext of many notes was, “why wasn’t I chosen?”
Others chose the moment to express doubt that the office would be devoted to “real” engagement and would not “empower” people, but would instead be just PR.
While much of the commentary is cloaked in polite-sounding academic jargon, it really seems to be quite bitter.
A bright spot is Sandy Heierbacher, founder of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, who asks a useful question:
How can we – as individuals, as leaders in public engagement work, as an organization, as a network – contribute to this effort? How can we add value to what’s happening? How can we get involved in meaningful ways?
It’s positive questions like this that I find myself wanting to spend time on.
My good friend John Creighton has been working on an idea that outlines how civic life has changed fundamentally. Whereas we used to define civic engagement in terms of how citizens relate to institutions, there’s been a power shift away from that. The action is all happening as individuals relate to one another.
That seems right on to me, and it has spurred a number of thoughts, some of which I will go into in the future. For now, though, it got me thinking about institutions and civic engagement.
Many of us in the “civic participation” field spend time worrying, and trying to measure, how “engaged” citizens are. Are they voting? Attending meetings? Writing their members of congress? Volunteering? And so forth.
But what if we have that relationship exactly backwards? Think of it this way: Citizens do what they do. They live their daily lives, they support themselves and one another economically, they get together to solve problems when they must. There’s a a whole range of connected activities that take place that have nothing to do with institutions.
But when we say “civic engagement,” the embedded assumption is that citizens need to engage with some system, defined in large part by institutional structures. But instead, let’s try measuring (and worrying about) how institutions are engaging with citizens. By that measure, I fear many institutions are not at all “civically engaged” — even (maybe especially) the ones that are in the civic engagement business!
Too many organizations think that by issuing a press release or starting a website they’ve somehow “engaged.” But meanwhile, citizens, going about their lives, are blissfully unaware of the the attempted communication. Us public-life junkies are Twittering to one another and starting Facebook groups — and we’re the only members. We’re all following each other.
We shake our heads and cluck our tongues at civic apathy, and worry about how to “get people more engaged.” Perhaps we ourselves are the ones who need to be better engaged.