Advocacy groups always face one of the greatest challenges in the nonprofit community – they have to play ball in the political arena. Politics is a nasty, ugly, and unforgiving realm and those who are unprepared for the fight are best to sit on the sidelines. One of my mentors once told me, “Never wrestle with a pig. The pig really doesn’t mind and all you will do is get dirty.” Oh how I wish I could heed that advice, but if you are going to venture into a political debate – it’s going to get dirty. Here are my five rules for winning in politics:
- Stand for your principles. Win or lose, you have to look yourself in the mirror when it is all over. Who you are is far more important than the bill you are supporting, the candidate you are opposing, or the office you are running for. Standing for principle means you may lose the battle, but you will win the war.
- Frame the argument. Conservatives have been losing important political ground for quite a while now, mostly because they have become a reactionary movement. Simply put, they are allowing the opposition to frame the argument and define them. How is it that those who fought for civil rights, defended the precious life of the unborn, and believe in the equality of all men are now viewed as heartless SOB’s who want rob the elderly of the healthcare and take food off the tables of starving babies. They allowed the opposition to frame the argument.
- Be Pro-active. This goes with the last point. Once you decide on an approach (and be thorough before settling on your position), don’t allow the opposition to reframe the argument. To use the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice example – you should never, never, never debate the “woman’s right to choose.” That is an argument you can never win – emotionally it positions against women (right or wrong). You must always address the life of the unborn. How do we do that, “I’m sorry, we were discussing the rights of the unborn. We protect unborn turtles, unborn Eagles, want wouldn’t we protect unborn babies?”
- Grass-roots support. You must identify your supporters and get them engaged in the battle. Every military general realizes that at some point in time you need boots on the ground. There have been many elections lost, won, or stolen at the polls on election day. Have poll watchers, people with signs out front, and supporters willing to stand their ground is critical if you are to win in politics.
- Finish strong. It is the undecided voter who wins and loses elections. Most of those who are truly undecided (not simply stated as such), make their decision within the last 4-6 weeks (many in the last few days). Most of your campaign effort and budget should go into those last 6 weeks of campaigning. It is often wise not to show your best materials until you are in that final push.
This may seem an odd topic for a nonprofit post (since charities are not to be political), but that too is a myth. I never attended a church where politics weren’t discussed in the classes, or from the pulpit, never met an advocacy group who didn’t take a stand one way or the other. Truth is – winning at the political level often insures we are winning in many other places as well.