Conventional wisdom says that most successful civic campaigns are all about opposing something, whether it’s a potentially harmful piece of legislation, a zoning ordinance, a right-to-build issue, budget cuts, a looming merger – the list goes on.

And it’s true that sometimes it can be easier to be against something than to be for it.  Some referendum campaign experts will tell you that it is easier to win a “NO” vote referendum than a “YES” vote (though I’m not sure this is still the case).

However, I’m starting to believe that things are changing, and that the “conventional wisdom” might be due for an overhaul.  I would argue that nowadays, successful civic campaigns are more about what a campaign is for rather than what it’s against. Giving decision makers – legislators, Mayors, Governors, or the voters –  something to actively support allows them to be proactive and feel more positive about what they are trying to accomplish.  It can also provide a reasonable alternative to something they might oppose, giving their argument more depth and strengthening their position.

Let me give you two examples (full disclosure: one of them is an initiative Denny Civic Solutions is leading).

In early 2011, the newly-formed Campaign for What Works was working hard to prevent human services cuts outlined in the proposed Pennsylvania budget.  At the time, the campaign was named “Why Cut What Works,” and was dedicated to preventing any more drastic cuts to effective, efficient human services programs.  But the campaign and advocates in the human services sector soon encountered difficulties in articulating exactly what constitutes “what works” and what doesn’t, and found that their message was being interpreted as “we are just against any cuts.”

In the end, the cuts were made and Why Cut What Works looked to reformulate its plan. Fast forward to 2012/13, and the newly-christened Campaign for What Works adopted a totally new approach – working for a win/win with the Governor and other legislative leaders.  The Campaign laid out severally initiatives it was specifically for, rather than simply pointing out what it was against.

Those initiatives included the creation of an Innovation Fund that would reward human service agencies and programs that demonstrate innovative and cost-effective ways of providing services.  The Campaign also pushed for evidence based analysis of state funded programs so that Pennsylvania can support programs that work for the taxpayer, consumer, and state and cut those that don’t.  These two positive ideas gave the Campaign an “in” with many lawmakers and immediately granted us more traction than simply being against more cuts.

The second example of positive campaigning done right comes from a dispute that readers in the Pittsburgh community should find very familiar: the ongoing battle between Highmark and UPMC.

Without getting into whose plan is right or wrong, what is clear to many is that UPMC is losing the civic campaign.  Why?  Because the only thing Pittsburghers know about is what they are against.  UPMC has been clear that they are against Highmark purchasing a competitor health delivery system and against signing a new contract allowing Highmark insurers to get services at UPMC.

Perhaps the civic campaign tide would turn for UPMC if they came out with a bold proposal of what they are for, articulating how it would significantly benefit patients and the community now and in the future, requiring more competition among health providers and insurers.  This could make it easier for people to understand and perhaps support the decision not to renew a contract with Highmark.

In the end, being against something simply may not be enough and doesn’t always work.  Give people something to be for – something they can really get behind – and your chances of winning a civic campaign will start to look a whole lot better.