Friday, October 28, 2011

What Nonprofits Can Learn from Political Campaigns

By Martin Wera, Program Director, Charities Review Council (@mjwera)

I love fall. I love seeing fields being harvested, the taste of Honeycrisp apples (take that SweeTango!), and the gentle bite of cold in the air. And, I have to admit it; I love the excitement of political campaigns as they hit fever pitch for Election Day. As a self-professed recovering political hack, there’s something indescribable about that final month of a campaign.

I’m also a nonprofit geek. (What can I say, I’m a man of many passions.) And this fall there have been some great conversations happening locally about collective impact sparked in large part to the Greater Twin Cities United Way’s United Front 2011.

We’re all familiar with the calls for nonprofits to learn from the for-profit sector (and vice versa), but it struck me while I was listening to Mark Kramer describe the 5 key qualities needed for collective impact at the United Front 2011 that there are some lessons the nonprofit sector could learn from the political sector too as it relates to collective impact. (Of course, I think there are a lot of things the political sector would do well to learn from nonprofits, but that’s for a later post.)

In the interest of space, I’m going to focus on just 3 of the 5 qualities that I think most directly connect.

1. Common Agenda (aka The Win Number)
To be successful, collective impact initiatives needs to have a laser focus on one shared vision or goal. This concept is at the forefront of every good political campaign as well. It’s called the win number and, simply put, it’s 50% of the vote plus 1. A lot of complex work can go into calculating the win number, but every staffer on a well-run campaign will know this number by heart and every action taken – from how much to spend on media to where to put field organizers – has to help get the campaign to this goal. If it doesn’t, forget it.

When collaborations fall short, it’s often because we didn’t take the time up front to get clear about a shared, specific goal AND use it as the criteria for every decision. It’s not enough to say we want to reduce homelessness among children by 50%, for example. We need to use that goal to drive every decision the group and the individual organizations make in getting there.

2. Shared Measurement Systems (aka The Voter File)
Just saying you need 50% plus 1 of the vote to win isn’t enough, you have to track it. And to do this political campaigns invest heavily in sophisticated data systems to track voters at the individual level – otherwise known as the voter file. Every time to get phone call, every time a campaign volunteer knocks on your door, it gets logged into the voter file. All of this data helps the campaign focus its resources on just those voters it needs to convince or mobilize in order to achieve its win number. (I’ll let you in on a tip. If you don’t want to get any mail, calls or door-knockers from campaigns, just tell them you’re voting for their opponent. They’ll never come back again.)

Buying a data system to track voters is usually the first thing a campaign does because it knows that without it, they’re effectively shooting in the dark. They also make sure that they can track their efforts down to the individual. Nonprofits need to learn to prioritize this too. Unless we can effectively track and share our data – down to the individual level – all the good intentions of the world will not get us to our shared goal.

3. Backbone Support Organizations (aka The Coordinated Campaign)
As political campaigns reach the final month, they begin their Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts, which often means a coordinated campaign effort. In simple terms, political parties (usually) will take charge of collecting all of the voter data collected from all of the different campaigns (another reason it’s important to have a shared measurement system) and take the lead in organizing how resources are going to be used to get their voters get to the polls. This way all of the campaigns know that efforts won’t be duplicated, people won’t be tripping over each other, and (hopefully) on Election Day they get to their win numbers.

The challenge, of course, with a coordinated system like this is that you have to cede a certain amount of control. No longer are the smaller, local campaigns for state representative, for example, calling their own shots. It’s now part of a larger effort. But there’s an understanding that by coordinating, everyone is more likely to win.

Steve Boland wrote a great blog about the need to fund backbone organizations, which I completely agree with, but I also think the sector needs to get more comfortable with giving up some level of organizational control when engaging in collective impact. It’s not enough to have a backbone organization; it needs to have the buy-in from the members to depend on it, which can mean putting the individual organization’s need for control on the back-burner.

Like I said earlier, I think there is a lot that the political world can learn from the nonprofit sector – things like meaningful community engagement techniques, building long-term, trusting relationships in under-represented communities, and effective ways to leverage volunteer skills. But I do believe that the nonprofit sector would do well to look at how political campaigns can leverage money and people in short periods of time to accomplish remarkable things. I think this conversation on collective impact is an exciting one and I’d be curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this too.

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