Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was famous for observing that “All politics is local.” In the early years of 50CAN we adopted that phrase, with a twist: “All politics is local, but locals shouldn’t have to start from scratch.”

As a former state Executive Director and now president of 50CAN, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to uphold the localness of our work while breaking down the isolation and needless reinventing of the wheel that holds our campaigns back. That is what led to my passion around building tools for local leaders and to the creation of the Expedition Advocacy online platform.



Since publicly rolling out the platform last week, we have been thrilled with how many people have reached out to obtain demos and learn more about how they might use it in their own work. I thought it would be helpful to share a bit more about the problems this tool was designed to solve, what it is all about and where we want to take it next.

It doesn’t need to be this hard

Over a decade of experience in the field, supporting local leaders, has given us key insights into the realities of advocacy work and the challenges almost all of us face. There were four persistent challenges that we saw across all of our campaigns. 

  • A lack of time. Most advocates struggle to juggle the day-to-day operations that this work demands while staying informed on their local education context. There is little time in a day to sit down and strategically think about how to influence policy and it’s easy to get stuck in a loop of reacting to other people’s plans rather than quickly building your own.
  • Skipping steps. Advocates can usually identify the bold policy change they are seeking, but often don’t spend enough time clarifying what a winning goal looks like given the local context or anticipating the opposition. This can result in skipping steps, mismatching strategies and tactics, and investing time, money and energy into plans that don’t move the needle toward actual change.
  • Lack of collaboration. In the fast moving world of advocacy, keeping team members and coalition partners plugged in to your plans can feel like a full-time job. As plans change, often that means that key actors are left in the dark because real-time updates take too long.
  • A clash between art and science. Becoming a great advocate usually requires a lot of time learning the ropes. Data could help us speed up that learning curve, but it isn’t always clear what to collect or how to organize it in a way that would be truly useful. 

I saw how some relatively simple steps, like the use of a common planning guide, helped us take on some of these problems. Our early efforts were pretty simple approaches grounded in pen-and-paper. The question then became: could a custom-built online platform not only help us with these problems, but completely transform the way we overcome them?

A new kind of tech tool 

Most people will advise you not to build something from scratch when an off-the-shelf technology will do. And if one had existed, we would have happily followed that advice. But after a careful review of the market, we realized that while there were interesting tactical tools, there wasn’t the kind of online hub that we really needed for our campaigns. 

So we set out to build it ourselves. To do so, we completely overhauled the pen-and-paper planning system and built an entirely digital platform from the ground up. With this new, user-friendly technology, advocates can instantaneously access plans, continuously make edits and regularly track progress. The goal is to help local advocates “work smarter, not harder” through four, interconnected features:

  • An online platform for building and sustaining policy and political advocacy campaign plans of different levels and types.
  • A simple, but powerful, dashboard for visualizing the progress made in each campaign.
  • A suite of best-in-class advocacy and legislative tracking tools for achieving campaign tactics.
  • New tools for analyzing the data across hundreds of other similar campaigns to better predict how to improve odds of success.

We launched the beta version of the platform in November of 2018, which included a policy planning worksheet. The entire 50CAN network served as the pilot group and provided us with important feedback that we would use to improve how it can solve real-world problems.

Based on their suggestions, we added in political planning worksheets, meeting trackers, a relationship management portal, budget worksheets and the ability to upload campaign collateral and after-campaign reflections. With these new features and hundreds of refinements, we decided this summer that this tool was too important to keep to ourselves. Our partnership program lets like-minded groups use Expedition Advocacy to plan and organize their own campaigns. 

Never finished

As we enter this next phase of our work, we are excited to embrace a spirit of collaboration, both inside and outside of 50CAN, to make this platform even more accessible and useful to local advocates across the country. That means more integrations with third-party advocacy tools, giving managers more control of which tools their teams can access, easier ways to import and export data, real-time analytics and a lot more. 

If that sounds like something you want to be a partner in, I would love to find time to set up and demo and share more. 

Vallay Varro was a founding state executive director. She now serves as the president of 50CAN.


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