Marc Porter Magee Ph.D is the CEO and founder of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

In the 50CAN Guide to Building Advocacy Campaigns we introduced the concept of a tactics toolbox. Like tools, there is no one tactic that is best for every situation. The key is to select the right tactics to help you accomplish the job at hand.

Our “Inside the Toolbox” series takes a more in-depth look at some of the most prominent tactics. In our inaugural post we explored the powerful social movement tactic of microtargeting. In this post, we look at negotiation, which is so important to advocacy that it is the only tactic in the toolbox that also appears in the name of a strategy.

The basics

When building an advocacy campaign, selecting a tactic should come only after you have clarified your goals and matched your strategy to your environment. Negotiation is a tactic you should consider if you have chosen the elite negotiations strategy, which is one of the four top strategies you can select when building an advocacy campaign. This strategy focuses on using your understanding of the interests of incumbent leaders to alter the status quo through trading and compromise.

So, what is negotiation? Simply put, it’s a process that two or more parties undertake to try and resolve their differences and reach a mutually beneficial outcome. That makes it different from a mediation, in which both groups agree to let a third party resolve their differences, or a competition, in which both groups strive for a goal that cannot be shared.

This give and take between groups is the main way most public policy debates are decided in our country. Negotiations often end in compromise, but that doesn’t mean each group has given up equal amounts of what they wanted. Knowing how to effectively negotiate on behalf of your cause will go a long way towards ensuring the deal you reach actually makes a difference for your cause. 

Start with no

There are a lot of great books on negotiation, but one of the most helpful is Jim Camp’s Start with No. Camp argues that one of the biggest traps we fall into when engaging in a negotiation is setting our sights on reaching a deal “as quickly as possible, by almost any means necessary.”

Rather than spending time trying to think up “win-win” scenarios that will ensure a deal is reached, Camp argues that instead you should focus your energy on understanding what would have to be in place for you to agree to a deal. The right time to do this is at the start of your campaign planning process. After clarifying their goals, we ask our local leaders to explain in detail where they would draw the line and say no. They then commit those specific points to writing so that they don’t get lost in the heat of a negotiation. 

The real negotiation starts not when the two sides present their arguments but when someone says no to an offer that falls short of the real changes they are seeking. Be prepared to say no a lot in the process of a negotiation. By doing your homework on what kind of changes are needed to actually make a difference for kids, you will ensure that when you say no, you say so with a confidence and conviction that is grounded in a commitment to your cause.

Strengthen your BATNA

BATNA, which stands for Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, is a concept developed by researchers Rioger Fisher and William Ury for the Harvard Program on Negotiation. It’s the course of action you turn to if you have to say no in a negotiation. Ironically, the stronger your BATNA is, the more likely it is that you will be offered a compromise you can accept.

If you are trying to buy a car, your BATNA is the price the next dealership will give you. You strengthen your BATNA when you know the price that will be offered by the second dealership before you start negotiating with the first. If you are trying to get a bill passed that would end layoffs based solely on seniority, you might have three BATNAs lined up as alternatives to supporting a weak bill: 1) supporting a stronger bill in the next legislative session; 2) supporting a lawsuit that would accomplish the same end through a legal avenue; or 3) supporting candidates for office who will run against those standing in the bill’s way.

The best way to strength your BATNA is to actively develop it before the negotiations are underway. This will help increase your leverage to get a better deal in the negotiations and help you avoid the mistake of walking away from a compromise that is better than your next best alternative. 

To download a PDF of the 50CAN negotiation worksheet for use in your campaign, click here.

Build a three-sided box

Shortly after his election in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with a group of labor leaders to discuss the upcoming session. He listened carefully as they outlined their plans for a much more aggressive government response to the Great Depression. He ended the meeting by saying simply, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

Alex Johnston, who leads the consulting firm Impact for Education and serves on the 50CAN Action Fund board, describes this step as “building a three-sided box.” You often hear advocates say that they are trying to box elected officials in but that’s not really the goal. We want things to change, not keep people in place where they are. Just as you are working to strengthen your next best alternative, you want to organize your advocacy plan so that your other tactics push them in the direction of change.

This work could include tactics within the elite negotiation strategy like editorials, advertising and coalition building or it could involve tactics from other strategies like petitions, marches and legal action. The reason the box has three sides and not four is that you want to allow the person you are negotiating with to be able to embrace the compromise and be celebrated for it. That is the ultimate “win-win.”

We hope you have found this look inside the tactics toolbox helpful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, comments and ideas and join us in the conversation about education advocacy on Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter: @marcportermagee
Facebook: 50CAN


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