About

What makes us take up causes others think are impossible?

What draws others to the cause, bonds us together, and gives us an inexhaustible energy and an unwavering belief that we’ll succeed? I started Champions of the Lost Causes to foster a dialog about the successes, setbacks and team dynamics that move causes forward. I’ll share what I’ve learned through my cause, but I am also here to learn.

This is about what drives us Champions, but it’s also a forum about real projects. It’s about your beloved park, your shuttered building, your polluted river. It’s about your child’s struggling school, your growing local food system, your gerrymandered voting district. 

You’ve got a team of Champions assembled and are hard at work. You are strong, passionate and committed to your project and each other. Now, you’ve got a community of Champions cut from the same cloth who are rooting you on and sharing ideas and hard-fought wisdom from the trenches. 

Together, we will be even stronger.

The FOMO Effect

Fear of missing out…the FOMO effect.

My friend Mike McCarthy is a true master of the FOMO effect, in that he gets you excited and enlists your help. He can recruit you before you know you’re being recruited. He makes it impossible to say no. The version of this that I’m good at is a part of my suite of “salesman of ideas” strengths. I, too, can get people excited about something and sell them on the cause, but I draw them in not only by the merits of the cause, but by mentioning their peers and what their experience/responses have been.

Selective name dropping, I guess, but not in the normal sense.

Most people name drop to elevate your opinion of them. I clue people in on a person’s connection to our cause to interest them by association. Sometimes, the person I mention isn’t necessarily a well-known person, but it’s someone with credibility to the person I’m talking to. Beyond mentioning the person to build credibility, I use how the person responded to move who I’m talking to to be convinced of my arguments. It’s essentially using persuasion and third-party validation all together in one conversation. For me, it happens organically, because like ideas naturally spring to mind. That may work for you, too.

Above all, be genuine. Don’t force it. YOU are a believer in your ideas, and your thoughts, your reputation as a leader and your sincerity should be the keys to getting people on board with your cause.

The value of being non-partisan

You want everyone on your side.

There is an argument to be made to everyone that will get them to act on your behalf. It’s just a matter of listening and alignment. If a person’s personal values and beliefs do not match your own, find the areas that do line up.

Some people are irredeemable or irrelevant to a given conversation. Treat them with respect, but do not concentrate your efforts on them. Most people who are even in the conversation related to your cause are “turnable.” They can be convinced. You can find common cause. It’s really only a matter of time and persistence.

Political party affiliation can often be largely irrelevant, especially on local issues (unless your cause intersects a core issue or culture war issues). Locally speaking, people are far less likely to pontificate. They are all too close to the subject matter to not engage with the actual specifics, and there are cases to be made to people of all political persuasions. At the end of the day, people are byproducts of their upbringing and are invested in their local communities… the ones who aren’t complete shills.

Even the total political frauds have a utility: they will line up for an opportunity to be seen as linked to a good cause, and yours is one.

The continuum of cause-based work

There is a continuum of cause-based work.

On one polar end is the smallest, most fledgling neighborhood-level work, and on the other end are the biggest nonprofits. Even the biggest ones came from Champions of the Lost Causes foundational moments.

I work at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and have ruminated on the Danny Thomas foundational story for years. Even it had that Champions foundational spark. After saying a prayer to St. Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of hopeless causes, saying “show me my way in life, and I will build you a shrine,” Danny ultimately was led to found St. Jude, and its founding battle cry was to tackle childhood cancer, which at the time was considered an almost sure death sentence. He could not walk away from his promise, and he aimed his intent at an intractable problem everyone else had shied away from.

Danny Thomas was a Champion, and when he found the lost cause of childhood cancer, which others had seen and passed by, he “found” it, and the world is glad he did.

Like any Champion, Danny drew to himself early adherents, and off they went, building from the ground up, talking to anyone who would listen. St. Jude now has an annual budget of more than a billion dollars, and it employs more than 4,000 people.

It all started with someone who saw a cause he could not ignore.

Sharing the limelight lets the wins “earn interest”

Always share the limelight with others. It helps you expand your coalition, which is full of leaders, worker bees, cheerleaders and hangers-on.

Winning is everything, provided you act in good faith and with integrity, but you have a choice to make.

You can occasionally make a withdrawal of credit for a given victory, or you can double down and put that momentum in the bank, to earn interest and advance the cause over time?

Always choose the latter.

Take praise in stride and, outside of saying “thanks for your kind words,” look for ways to share the credit and fold forward the energy toward the ultimate goal. Let every smaller win within win “earn interest,” empower another actor, or animate another ally.

Let it all serve the wider win… the ultimate overarching win that set you all in motion from the beginning.

Champions play the longest game

Nothing is irredeemable and no one is unturnable.

Almost anyone can be convinced. It just takes the patience and implacability of a Champion.

Patience, kindness and open-mindedness must be tethered to your resolve. If all you achieve in a given conversation is a person’s begrudging admiration, know that you are moving them closer to conversion to your way of thinking.

Over time, you’ll get a sense of when you’ve reached a saturation point and need to move on. Once you’ve moved them as far as you can, stop. Change the subject. Be gracious. Talk about something else. Show genuine interest in something else, especially if you can establish common ground elsewhere.

How much a person seems unturnable or unconvincable is often driven by how connected to conventional power he or she is. Remember, the staid actors in your drama are counting on their institutional power to carry the day. They may assume that their institution’s stance on a given issue is unchangeable, and that even if they like you or your arguments, they’ll navigate by self-preservation first and think “I should know my place” and “not rock the boat.” You can actually make lots of headway in situations like these. Their assumption that your cause, noble as it may be, stands no chance, makes it easier for them to think “Well, what the hell… I’ll hear him out.” They’ve let their guard down, or perhaps it’s their better, more curious and optimistic nature winning out. Either way, you have a chance to make your case. Because you’ve chosen to play the longest of long game, all you have to do is move them one inch. That one inch could be admiration for your plucky resolve and positive, can-do civic optimism. They’ll think “I may not agree with him fully, but gosh, I admire him. Our city needs more optimistic doers like these people.” You may move them farther. Your conversation may also teach you something about the pain points or sticking points that person’s organization has. All of it can be tilled into the ongoing “compost pile” of leads, tips and clues that will help you build your case and lead you to the next helpful conversation. Just like there are early adherents, there are late adherents… even very late adherents. Where a person falls on this continuum is often linked to how connected he or she is to power and how powerful institutions use the might of conventionality to win the day. They count on a system of conventional moves that you are slowly but surely upending. You are slowly rewriting the stale old narrative with something much more compelling. This will take time, but that’s okay, you’re willing to take it. Some of the most reluctant people are often the most powerful and you have to be careful with some people. Some will respond only to power relationships… but some will see the conversion of peers who are as powerful or more powerful than they are and start to take notice. Some can be moved to consider your position if they see enough powerful peers of theirs start to believe you’re right. If that person is a seemingly unconvertible journalist, set them aside. Sometimes it is better not to “poke the bear” that could write a column and turn thousands against your cause. Peel off who you can from a given media outlet (there will be plenty of easier converts) and just know that entrenched, late adherents may only be brought along when the evidence is overwhelmingly in your favor and alliances they must respect emerge. Then and only then will they shake your hand and claim to have been with you all along. The nicer ones will admit they thought you were crazy but will say, in essence, “my hat’s off to ya.” Smile, be gracious, take the hard-fought win and resist the urge to lecture or gloat. Champions don’t need to. They have their hearts set on the wider win, which is always best served by being magnanimous, kind and generous. Always “take what the defense gives you.” If you can win a person over quickly, great. Count them among your allies and look for them to help, even if it’s just as a cheerleader from the sidelines. Those you can only move an inch, take it, and count on that person to at least be aware and most likely to be helpful in what you learn from them and what they may do with what they learn from you. And for those especially tough nuts to crack, remain kind, optimistic and confident when you do engage them, and minimize the damage they could do to your cause with the power they wield. In a sense, you want to treat people like that with kid gloves so you don’t make them dig in deeper as an enemy. Then they’ll be even harder to convert. If you can’t move them one inch in the right direction, at least don’t move them in the wrong direction. Leave them alone, make converts of their subordinates and peers and live to fight another day. Remember the old Maya Angelou quote: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

People may remember what you said and did, but how you made them feel will be most important in terms of them listening to you in the future. Be kind always, even when it’s hard.

More on setbacks, doubt and the value of having a deep bench

As a Champion, you signed up for something you knew wouldn’t be easy.

Frustrations large and small are part of the landscape. Very few setbacks actually amount to the game being truly over. Until the highway gets built through your beloved park or the wrecking ball brings down your 100-year-old building, there is time left on the clock and plays to call. You may be waiting for a city councilperson to call you back before you can move forward on a given sub-goal of work.

Okay, while you wait, make progress on something else.

Talk things through with another member of your group. Champions take on multifaceted projects that can take years, and progress is often made in one-inch moves forward on hundreds of sub-goals. This alone can seem daunting at the outset, but Champions don’t think about this at the outset. We act because we have to. Someone has to and, since no one else is, we must. We don’t stop to think about what comes next until we have to, especially early on. When you reach a point of frustration, it can be helpful to reflect on the successes and setbacks of the past. Your mind may automatically conjure these up, especially when one setback reminds you of a previous one, or you’ll trip over an old email that reminds you of a problem that seemed unsolvable at the time. But you’ll smile as you remember how you worked through it.

Herein lies the strength of the group.

No one person is going to have it together all the time. We have ups and downs, and competing priorities will demand your time. When I am at my lowest or most tired, it is then that I remind myself that I only have to do my part. It’s about then that someone else on the team breaks through on another front. How wonderfully encouraging it is to realize that one of your team members has completed a project within (a business plan, a statistical analysis that supports your argument) or made a key connection at a mixer. Without any effort on your part, the group moved forward. You will be the energy person at another time when your teammates are low and think your group is in a rut. Once your teammate produces a piece of work, you read it and it dawns on you that this is the perfect backgrounder document to send to that journalist you were pitching on writing a story. That key connection your friend made is the exact person you need to get you a meeting at the foundation. Little by little, you move forward. A Champion is self-confident and endowed with great gifts, but he is not a one-man show. Champions know they have equally powerful Champions on their team, and they take turns giving the effort fuel, work and enthusiasm to carry it forward. Your team is like a basketball team viewed over a season. One night you might have the hot hand. Your teammates will feed you the ball and let you fill up the stat sheet. Other nights your mojo isn’t working perfectly. You crash the boards, play hustle D, scrap for 50/50 balls and try to contribute in different, smaller ways.

Your teammate might be the one to carry the scoring load.

No NBA team goes 82-0.

There will be nights you lose a game, but the season is long and defeat teaches us in ways that success can’t.

Setbacks teach us and develop our core strengths.

Setbacks teach us what we can’t learn any other way.

Setbacks not only teach us about our limitations, but they also help us better delineate our duties within the team.

As the early part of a campaign wears on, one person will emerge as the one who’s good with media, another is great with spreadsheets, analysis and building budgets. Learn to play to your group’s strengths, but be prepared to “crosstrain.” Sometimes an opportunity will fall into the lap of someone, and you have to just roll with it. That’s fine. Perfect execution is not required, only consistent effort is. Your group is implacable, resolute, determined. You’ve had setbacks, but you’ve learned to take them in stride. Even the ones that really hurt, you heal. You move through them. You find a way forward.

The more setbacks you work through, the more you learn to see them in perspective. What seems like the end of the world early on, will seem more like a mild annoyance later on.

After all, you’ve seen it before.

Actors in the drama will seem smaller later on in much the same way an elementary school seems smaller to the returning high school junior. When your effort is newer, you are more likely to be lectured by supposed experts. Sometimes this is helpful advice… actually there’s always something you can glean. In most cases, that person is truly trying to be helpful, but they may also fear that you will succeed where they failed, using tactics they never thought to use. Who are you, after all, to take on a problem and win the day when I, someone more seasoned in this realm, “found” this cause years ago, but let it “sit there.” They “found” the cause but, seeing it as too hard, set it back down. Take all advice with respect and humility, and assume positive intent, but realize that the person may also be trying to come to terms with their own regret for failing to take action. Don’t dismiss these people, because at their core, they are likely good people who care about their community and want to do what is right. Besides what you may learn, listening respectfully also may enlist that person in your cause in a peripheral way. If nothing else, they will appreciate the dialogue and be more likely to cheer your group on in social media or within their social circle.

All of this puts points on the board and, as a bonus, serves as an encouragement to that person, who has his or her own work and sphere of influence.

The air support of public opinion

Just as “trust but verify,” is important in the day-in-day-out hand-to-hand combat of moving forward, an equally important tool in your arsenal as you fight the incremental war is to “keep them honest.”

Your main ally in this is the media… and social media. To keep with the war analogy, media and social media are the “air support,” the bombardment that can have a big impact and often reset the battle lines.

If you’re not “out there” in the media with your positive vision of your project, Joe and Jane Everyone can’t follow along. If too much time passes without an update, they lose the thread or revert to some previous understanding of the issue. The opposition can drive its own news, too, and their version of it will never be as sympathetic to your version of what’s possible than yours. It will never be as compelling either, and that is a continuous advantage you will have.

The good news is Champions of lost causes are more nimble and agile than the people on the other side, who often have to get their messages passed up the chain of command or okay-ed by the mayor or their corporate lawyer. This watering-down process makes their messages way less compelling than yours. This makes it all the more important to be able to convey a positive version of the story at every phase.

Focus on the progress made. Again, use conflict very sparingly… as a last resort… especially in the later phases.

  • Issue a press release at a key juncture.
  • Go on a morning talk show and have your spokesman make the case succinctly.

    The best person for this PR assignment is often the diplomat, because they have in their heart the more optimistic, generous version of the story and what’s hoped for, and they can look past the small, grievances to paint a prettier, optimistic picture using bullet points. The viewer gets a quick update and is left with the thought Well, that’s great! looks like people are working together and making progress.

    If this makes the other side a little uneasy, that’s good. It should. They need to see that you have a direct connection to the people and that you can sway public opinion. They need the public on their side (for a given issue or for reelection).

    It is a reminder that they need you on their side and that your group can’t be taken for granted. They have to occasionally be caught off-guard by your use of media. You do it in a way that leaves them no choice but to like and appreciate you, because you give them nothing to attack… it’s all positive and couched in gratitude for them. How can they have any issue with it? Your version is different enough that they’ll see where they are not in alignment. It will concern them. This will tee up additional meetings, where you’ll find more common ground, build more rapport etc.

    Without the occasional counterweight of media to “keep them honest,” they’ll revert to their default, which is working on all the issues themselves and in concert with the “hidden stakeholders,” who either avoid you or are cagey around you, and who want to conduct their business privately, and with the people they consider the traditional power brokers.

Gentle Controversy

There is power is controversy.

As activists, controversy is powerful wind in our sails, and any drama needs conflict as an animating element.

But too much conflict and people tune out, and you need people to stay engaged.

Any mass movement needs to leverage public opinion to sway elected officials, drive the news cycle and generally show people why, exactly, the cause has direct importance on their lives or the lives of those they care about. Many causes we Champions take up have an enemy: a seemingly immovable public official, a policy or statute we want changed.

You’ll feel the temptation to rail against what is holding back progress, but be careful how you respond to the call of the nemesis. At the outset, you have to make the case for change being necessary, and that may mean standing in opposition to powerful people and their plans.

Do it with respect.

Discipline yourself to treat these people with the respect of their offices, regardless of whether you think they deserve it or are acting in good faith in carrying out their duties. Why? Because it makes your cause more sympathetic.

But more important, treating the other guy or bad policy with a degree of restraint it makes you harder to dismiss, both by the person in opposition and by the people who thinks that person is right or “a good guy.”

The diplomat and the skeptic

Among your group, you will likely find a diplomat… a diplomatic person. That is always my role, and you need people like me. As a glass-overflowing optimist, I can easily believe the best in a person. I can get along with the Devil himself. The diplomat is the person who should be in most frequent contact with the opposing side and especially the arch nemesis, if you truly have one.

If you’re the hardened skeptic of the group, it may frustrate you that the diplomat can see the good in people who seem shady to you. That’s okay. You need the diplomat to relate to them, bring back helpful intel that wouldn’t be shared with your group otherwise, and give the opposition the sense that you are reasonable people. It may even give the opposition the sense that they have you fooled, placated, out of the way. This creates a false sense of security, which can make them vulnerable. You can exploit this. They think they have you fooled, but the joke is on them. The skeptic is the unseen counterweight they weren’t expecting, and that person’s interrogation of the facts and resulting tactics can hit the opposition in the gut when they’ve let their guard down.

The power comes in the duality… the coupling of the skeptic and the diplomat. Every leadership team needs one of each. Both have long-game optimism about ultimate success, but each analyzes and interrogates new information differently.

Together, your group’s view is stereoscopic. The differing views are the two eyes that combine to give you depth perception. The diplomat can “hang in there” with terrible people and believe that what they’re saying might be true. Diplomats can be gullible at just the right time. Sometimes what you’re being told, you learn later on, was true, although seemingly untrue to the skeptic at the time. The diplomat convinces the skeptic and possibly others in the group who are skeptical to “hold out hope” that the promised collaboration or next step might truly be in the offing. The skeptic is very important, too. He or she is less trusting and, to satisfy their skeptical curiosity, they will dig through public records, engage a city council person to get another take etc. They often bring back troubling contrary information that you’ll have to deal with, but they often corroborate what the diplomat was told and, only then, accept it. If you did not have the diplomat to “hold out hope” and “give people the benefit of the doubt” and “hang in there” while the slow gears of change move, your group would interrogate everything to death and become convinced that the “fix is in.” The fix is never in. Even when it is, it isn’t. Giving in to this way of thinking is defeatist and must be resisted. It is dis-empowering and leads nowhere. The “powers that be” are rarely the conspiratorial, cohesive, malevolent unit that we imagine. They are individuals with agendas, and like most everyone, they are a mix of good and bad qualities. Even truly bad people have good in them and can be motivated to act in accordance with your vision. And you can play off even people’s selfish motives and create change. What matters most is staying at it and remaining hopeful, as a unit. The fix is never in. Your efforts are never hopeless. Hold out hope that you are making progress. If one front seems immovable at any given time, make progress where you can. Keep moving. You have legs the other side does not have. Your cause is more powerful than their selfishness, self-interest and petty, lazy plans built on conventional assumptions and traditional power arrangements. Yes, those systems and players have power, but they are slow-footed and cumbersome. They are used to having their way with minimal effort. They are not fleet of foot like you and your group of Champions. You will work circles around them. They won’t know what hit them. They will have no answer for your implacable commitment and relentless, plucky idealism. In time, many of those forces will be converted. You will win many of them over. Then the staid actors become your allies. At the end of the day, they just want a win, and with the arch enemy long ago vanquished, and in the absence of any good reason to not get on board, they will, and your effort will gain steam, gain allies, and the conversation rate will accelerate. This is the beginning of the home stretch. But be careful. There can and will be setbacks, and you may find that your effort has a whole second half. You thought you were closing out the game, but you find you are only at halftime. Don’t be discouraged. Take heart in knowing that the new theater of work and activity wouldn’t have even been possible if you hadn’t “left it all on the field” in the first half. You are winning.

So, if not in direct, obvious conflict, how to agitate effectively while remaining at the table as one who, in the main, remains optimistic about where things are headed? What people want to see – Joe and Jane Everybody following along strictly by what they read in the news – is progress. Conflict at the outset (waged with respect) is necessary, but people want to see it channeled into healthy, productive change, and ultimately, they want to see “both sides” working together. That has to be the narrative, even if in the background there are all sorts of missteps, lack of agreement, and arguing.