Photo courtesy of Chris and Karen Highland, copyright 2012.

Hope is not a strategy. A champion is.


In the past year, we’ve shared a few things that we’ve learned in more than twenty years of grantmaking, including our commitment to transparency, the possible ripple effects of small investments, and the importance of humility in philanthropy. We’d also like to share what our grantees are learning, and so we recently asked our colleague Rick Johnson to share one of the big lessons his organization (a long-time Brainerd grantee) has learned about making conservation progress in a deeply red state. Here’s his story.


A bumper sticker in my office says “Save Something.” As a career conservationist, I like the “just do it” urgency, but like too many campaigns I’ve seen, it’s vague to the point of being funny.

The Brainerd Foundation has been funding and observing campaigns for over twenty years. From the other side of that desk, I’ve been working as a grantee and activist on conservation campaigns for over thirty. At the core, there are two kinds of conservation campaigns: stopping bad things from happening and getting good things done. Right now I’m thinking about getting government to do good — proactive campaigns to pass a law or other government action.

We all have hopes for government. When it comes to the environment, maybe it’s creating a park or wilderness area. Maybe it’s eliminating carbon or creating incentives for renewable energy. Maybe it’s just saving a neighborhood tree.

But you don’t save anything by just hoping. If you’re going to save something, you need a strategy; and when dealing with government, your strategy requires activating champions.

I define a champion as an advocate for my cause within government. It could be a congressman, a city council member, or the president.

Champions carry your campaign or goal where the decisions happen. They get it done.

And it’s always a “they.” While a campaign needs at least one champion to carry the torch as it moves forward, others must be ready to join in, to complement the efforts. A grave problem with government today is so many are going it solo. An orchestra of soloists lacks harmony, and most days Congress can’t even agree on a key.

In a perfect world people do good things because they’re good people, because your cause is good. Guess what? That never happens. Champions don’t sit around waiting to help you. Nearly always, champions have to be cultivated and tended to. Officeholders have constant requests thrown at them. Everyone wants something from them.

At the national level, the clamor in Congress can be so intense, you find people whose entire job is to shield their boss from, well, people like us.

Officeholders take on causes because others have created enough pressure, good will, or hell-raising to demonstrate that what’s good for you is also good for them. Ideally, your champion shares your values and can be drawn in because of merit and a nudge. But this rarely happens. Champions are more often created by groundswells of public opinion. They engage because of a growing political force. And they will work with advocates they trust, who have built real, deep, and long-lasting relationships with them.

As advocates, we have one simple goal in a proactive campaign: to make success politically inevitable. That means we create so much goodwill, so many different demonstrations of public support, that the people who can make it happen want to make it happen. It’s the point where editorial writers, chambers of commerce, and all sorts of people believe momentum is there and they want to be part of it.

We remember those moments when we’ve reached the point of political inevitability. It’s exciting. It’s even a bit scary as a leader takes your idea, picks it up, and really looks at the goal or campaign through their eyes rather than yours. They start to hold it tightly and begin owning it as if it was their idea all along. But a champion has to own the cause they’re working for, because when they own it they will take political risk. They will use their political capital to win. When they own it they become leaders.

But it is wise to remember that while leadership is critical, so is power. A champion without power or the potential to create power may not get your campaign over the finish line. So, choose wisely, my friends.


Not long ago, I reached the end of a long campaign that lead eventually to the passage of a wilderness bill in Congress — very difficult these days. The campaign included developing and working with a champion, in this case a conservative Congressman representing a red state in the West. While it took well over a decade to find ourselves at the bill signing, we finally did get there, together, arguably both changed by the process.

Crater Lake, in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, is now protected as part of the new Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness, thanks to the dedication of Idaho Senator Mike Simpson, the Idaho Conservation League, and many others.

Because it took so long, the evolution of the campaign became a story. It had a clear narrative arc. Creating and supporting a new champion — an unlikely champion — was part of the story. At times the unlikely champion was the story, as were his growing relationships with more typical environmental champions. Getting things done requires leaders seeking common ground and a willingness to expend political capital to seek a solution. Getting something done involves compromise. And yet environmentalists aren’t always skilled at that. A champion who’s serious about leading has to know you are serious, that you have his or her back.

Environmentalists are often known for fighting things; but working to get something good done isn’t about fighting — it’s about making friends.

Working with the public to create overwhelming support develops new skills within a team. It creates positive messaging for public outreach events and media. Creating and really using such messaging is good for your organization and cause. People are hungry for positive momentum, and positive public outreach work is also smart organization building work.

Building public support also creates credibility with new audiences. Volunteers are attracted to proactive positive work. So are editorial writers, business leaders, and elected officials. Proactive efforts also attract talent to your team, and develop leaders in your community. In short, proactive work builds power, power that endures beyond the campaign.

And the best part? It works. It’s hard, to be sure. Sometimes it takes a very long time. But when President Obama is shaking your hand saying, “This must be a pretty special day for you,” you can respond, looking from the bill signer to the bill’s champion you began working with so many years ago, and say, “Mr. President, it’s a special day for a lot of people.”

Winning campaigns are woven together with many strategic threads. These threads complement each other and create momentum, resilience, and power. A relationship with champions who, as elected or appointed representatives, play a leadership role is always one of the most critical threads. Whether moving a goal forward or holding the ground, the work to develop and support a champion can be the difference between winning and losing.


Note: In addition to serving as the executive director of the Idaho Conservation League (a long-time Brainerd grantee) for over twenty years, Rick Johnson also consults with the Brainerd Foundation on its place-based conservation strategy in the Crown of the Continent and the High Divide.