“Always take hold of things by the smooth handle.”

– Thomas Jefferson.

What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he said, “Always take hold of things by the smooth handle?”  Were these meant as sound instructions for leading a worthwhile life, or was he giving political advice to his fellow founding fathers?

Either way, from a civic campaign perspective, “always take hold of things by the smooth handle” is undoubtedly good advice.  It tells us to avoid unnecessary arguments, seek win-win solutions, acknowledge differences while seeking common ground, remove extreme positions as quickly as possible, and avoid drawing lines in the sand.

Consider these two examples of organizations “taking things by the smooth handle.”   A few years ago, a volunteer fire company that provides services to a township in Southwestern Pennsylvania demanded an extra $100,000 from the township, saying they would have to close their doors without it.  The township refused.  They couldn’t afford $100,000 and didn’t want to pay, but nor did the volunteer fireman really want to shut down. It was a stalemate. Yet once both sides finally took the extremes off the table, they worked out a plan that provided some financial assistance and a plan for working together to better tackle both the emergency needs and the costs for the township.

A second example of putting aside differences and trying to find win-win solutions was sought by The Campaign for What Works and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. The Campaign, representing hundreds of human service providers and thousands of vulnerable citizens, knew that the providers couldn’t withstand another State budget cut. The Campaign also knew that the Governor wanted to promote competition and reward high-achieving organizations with proven outcomes. So instead of simply asking for more money, The Campaign for What Works proposed the creation of an “Innovation Fund” within Welfare to be awarded to county providers on a competitive basis. The Campaign and the administration are still working toward this common ground – but at least it started the conversation and got both parties to the table.

Successful civic campaigns try to find the smooth handle.  It’s not always easy, and sometimes it can’t be done.  Everyone has an opinion. But you have to remember not to let the campaign get hung up on simply “winning” the argument with someone who has a different perspective – after all, if you always reach for the smooth handle, you’ll avoid unnecessary splinters!