How to Be Proactive and Win Campaigns

Have you ever got so caught up in the momentum of a campaign that you feel like there’s barely enough time to finish the next task?

If you’re like many organizers, including myself, it can be easy to just focus on the immediate next step.

I know I often convince myself that “I’ve planned everything out.”

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

With the rush of activity that comes with a vibrant campaign, there are a lot of reasons why the details take precedence. However, I want to look at what happens when we act proactively, instead of reactively.


The incredible heights of proactivity and the dangers of a narrow focus


The Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN) serves as a powerful dual reminder for the benefits of proactivity and the punishment for not looking ahead.

ACORN, one of the most influential and empowering anti-poverty organizations in the U.S.’s history, fought tirelessly for a range of social justice issues (e.g. affordable housing, workers’ rights, living wages, livable neighborhoods, etc.)

Part of ACORN’s early strength came from the fact that it almost never let up, and always sought new angles to push forward its campaigns.

ACORN’s ever-amplifying strategies and tactics kept opponents on their toes, which ACORN made tougher by frequently anticipating their foes’ next moves.

This proactive approach to campaigns won ACORN many victories.

However, high-profile successes also brought high-profile attacks.

ACORN’s highly-effective campaigns to empower low-income populations in the democratic process led to a steady increase in backlash from those who would rather not see elevated voter turnout from impoverished communities.

As John Atlas writes in Seeds of Change, although ACORN’s voter registration quality-control methods (e.g. flagging suspicious/problematic registration cards, paying staff by the hour and not by the # of registration cards, and confirming cards by calling the listed number) were some of the most stringent in the nation, ACORN still couldn’t escape political attacks.

Even though the mainstream media and political commentators continually accused ACORN of “voter fraud,” John Atlas notes “Not one U.S. attorney found any evidence of an illegal vote cast and counted because of registration by ACORN and those working for it.”

After unrelenting pressure, due to a few poor decisions (e.g. prioritizing all organizing work while neglecting accounting practices), ACORN eventually ceased operations and created a void so profound that countless groups immediately committed to filling the gap left by ACORN.

While I have learned many lessons from ACORN, one of the most important is to prepare for criticism and look ahead to potential challenges.

If ACORN had applied its skills to proactive organizing work to being just as proactive at accounting and media work, then ACORN would have had a much better chance at resisting its opponents.


Principles/Elements of Proactive Campaigns


Being proactive is crucial not only for organizations, but also for the individuals carrying out a campaign. Below I’ve written out some key ways to maintain a forward-moving emphasis.

Being proactive should be all-year long – don’t just have a meeting, plan possible outcomes, and then rest on what you’ve made. Consider ways to improve your work, then think again and improve again.

Consider all possible scenarios (good or bad) that could influence the success of your campaign – remember ACORN’s example! If you’ve thought critically about challenges and how to meet them, then you’ll be in a much better place then if you were unprepared.

Look beyond your day-to-day task list – when thinking about what you need to get done today, also think about what you could do this month/year. I try to set aside at least 30 minutes to an hour a week to close my TODO list and think what else I could be doing. I often find something valuable to support my work.

Keep track of what you need to accomplish in the mid to long-term – even if you cannot get to everything right now, at least have a place to store future ideas so that way you can pick them out when the time is right.

Be proactive in all areas of the campaign, not just a few – ACORN focused on its organizing work and neglected its media and accounting work, which taught me to look beyond just the work that I enjoyed the most.

Consider where you’re at and what else you could be doing now or in the near future – whether you’re in a strategy session, or pondering proactive dreams at your desk, there are plenty of places to analyze how to act differently.

If you see an issue take care of it right away! – If you have the skills to take care of something, don’t wait, just respond to the issue right then.

Plan out ways for your campaign to be proactive over the course of its work – making a plan for how you’ll be proactive in your campaign, may just be one of the most proactive steps you could take!

Evaluate if your campaign is “meeting the need” – if there are areas that are not being met yet, figure out how you can resolve them.

As I realized from ACORN’s experiences, being proactive is never ending.

Now I try to avoid getting caught in a cycle of day-to-day tasks and instead aim to keep finding ways to think ahead.

Got other ideas for being proactive? Then leave a comment and share your experience!

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+