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Checklist for Successful Campaigns

While the fall elections are many months away, there’s no time like the present for nonprofits and their foundation supporters to begin planning issue campaigns for 2013 when the focus returns to policy matters.  The first decisions: determining what’s achievable and assessing who and what stands in the way to success. That’s some of the advice from Erin Campbell Boltz, senior vice president at Spitfire Strategies, and John Passacantando, former executive director of Greenpeace USA, who share their list of campaign to-dos.

1. Set your sights on a clear goal.

Erin: This is where all campaign planning should start – what do you want to achieve in 2013? What does that measurable success look like? Take the time to write down your goal and map out a plan. The Just Enough Planning Guide, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, outlines a framework for creating a campaign strategy, starting with a measurable goal.

John: Drop the dogma. Get a real assessment of your opponent, yourself and your landscape. Creating a shared understanding across a campaign – from your lead strategists to the staff pushing out messages on social media – can keep you from going off course.

2. Know exactly who you need to move.

John: Who actually has the power to move your effort and to whom do they listen?

Erin: Yes, definitely. Create a list of decision makers, existing champions and the champions you need to recruit to win. Map who you have relationships with and access to (or don’t). Too often groups spend time trying to reach too many people, rather than targeting the right number of people needed to make progress.

John: Right, we’re talking campaign wins here, not broader movement propaganda. Occupy Wall Street feels righteous, but without a clear goal and someone specific to move, it remains in the realm of broad movement rhetoric. No real targets, no real campaign victories.

3. Arm yourself to face the opposition.

Erin: Determine if your message is winning – or if your opposition is dominating the conversation. Understanding the opposition informs the messages, messengers and stories needed to build a powerful campaign.

John: The fight against the Keystone XL pipeline had some of the finest organizing we’ve seen in a generation. It drove a rather unsexy story about the approval of a pipeline into the center of a media and political storm. But when the messaging went from, “If the pipeline is approved, it’s essentially game over for the planet,” to various revelations about alternative pipelines, rail lines, and plays by refiners, the thread was lost. Elite media became more skeptical. In other words, we didn’t know our opposition well enough and we didn’t know ourselves. We waded into a fight with some huge misperceptions about a business we were trying to impact.

4. Be realistic and play to your strengths.

Erin: Build a campaign plan around your strengths to have the most impact. Do you have strong media contacts, a deep grassroots and grasstops network or powerful messengers?

John: Greenpeace goes after campaigns where the organization’s creativity and style are most needed. We could be very public in calling out our targets – but that isn’t the bailiwick of every group. Know your strengths and leverage those.

5. Don’t go it alone – engage the right campaign partners.

Erin: Form a collaboration of the willing. You can’t do your planning on the time table of the most reluctant partner. This leads to frustration and stalls campaigns. Don’t force partners to the table. Instead, work with those that want to be there to advance a common goal.

John: Do this early on so you can pool resources, balance assets and develop the trust that you will need to work collaboratively.

6. Wrangle coalitions with a strong campaign manager.

John: When working as a coalition, appointing a campaign manager is critical, whether it’s someone from one of the allied organizations or an outside person tasked with that coordinating role.

Erin: The campaign manager oversees the big picture to make sure policy, media and grassroots staff are talking to each other and leveraging each other’s work.

John: It is also important for the campaign manager to manage regular communication. If you’re working on a relatively near-term goal, this often means weekly calls, and then daily check-ins when things are close to decision points.

7. Empower a core decision-making team.

Erin: Campaigns require quick decisions that often can’t be negotiated with a large group. Empower a core group of decision makers to react to changing circumstances quickly. Spitfire recently worked with Child Nutrition Initiative on its campaign to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches. Despite the number of different groups involved in the effort, and each with their own priorities–from combating childhood hunger to promoting farm-to-school programs–they all agreed to make nutritional school lunches their common focus. Because the small group of decision makers was clear on their mandate, the campaign could react quickly to fast-moving changes in Congress and impact the legislative process in real time.

John: I’ve seen too many “collaborative” efforts where the most aggressive campaigning is internal. That’s destructive.

Erin: If you’re dealing with a multi-organization coalition for a campaign effort, this recent post from in the Stanford Social Innovation Review has some excellent suggestions for organizing structures, based on approaches that have worked for different types of alliances.


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