Last week we launched this blog series with the goal of serving as a catalyst for a wider conversation about growing the local education advocacy movement by lowering the barrier for more aspiring advocates to get involved.
Often times, this barrier starts with the word “advocacy” itself. Those of us who work in this field have all been there: we’re at a family gathering, asked what we do, and often feel stumped in providing a concrete answer.
“You work in advocacy. Does that mean politics?”
“Kind of…but not exactly. We’re nonpartisan. We focus on promoting ideas.”
“Through annual campaigns.”
“So political campaigns?”
“No. These campaigns are focused on promoting ideas rather than candidates. We’re trying to improve the way our education system works.”
“So you lobby?”
“Sometimes, but the work is much broader than that.”
Our friends at Wikipedia define our work this way: “advocacy is a political process by an individual or group which aims to influence decisions within political, economic and social systems and institutions.”
That’s a bit of a mouthful. Perhaps environmentalist Aidan Ricketts said it best when he wrote, “activists are like the immune system of the body politic—they move to the sites of dysfunction and injustice and aim to fight, repair and heal.”
Of course, we all want to make the world a better place. Through ways big and small we are trying to make that happen in our daily life. What makes a great advocate different is the extraordinary discipline he or she brings to the work of making the world better. There are a lot of amazing books out there and many professionals to learn from, but at its core all of this advice boils down to one basic concept: don’t skip steps.
Most advocacy efforts are organized into campaigns, a series of coordinated operations designed to achieve a set of objectives over a discrete period of time. At 50CAN, our local leaders run annual campaigns that are announced at the beginning of the legislative session. Their successes and failures are then recorded in a campaign scorecard released at the end of the summer. This transparency can be a little nerve-wracking, but we have found that the public accountability helps us all stayed focused on our goals and learn from our successes and setbacks along the way.
Every local campaign in our network is unique, but a common planning process helps to ensure that everyone has the support they need to maximize their odds of success. The 50CAN team uses a three-step approach to campaign building: goals, strategy and tactics.
The first step in any campaign is to ensure clarity of goals, which are the desired results or end points envisioned in a campaign. In our work, goals most often take the form of policy changes.
The most common mistake in any campaign is to move forward before you have done the hard work needed to select the right goal. That starts with reflecting on the personal and community values that should inform the changes you seek, listening to the people most directly involved in the issue at hand, reviewing the history of the relevant policies in your community and reading all the relevant research. We’ll discuss the policy framework our local leaders developed to guide this process in a future post.
Once you are confident you have selected the right goal and it can be clearly articulated, you can get to work choosing the right strategy to secure that goal. These strategies are time-tested patterns of action that increase the odds of success in conditions of uncertainty—which in advocacy is always.
One of the biggest challenges in this step is to carefully weigh all the options and select the strategy that best fits your goal, your strengths and your environment. That requires collecting the facts about your issue, who might support or oppose it, who has the power to help you achieve it and what kind of resources you can put to work in the campaign. It also helps to ground this selection process in a planning template that presents the most common strategies and the success factors that would need to be in place to make each strategy work. Sounds like a lot, right? Never fear, we’ll break down the strategy framework our local leaders developed in an upcoming post.
There are hundreds of possible tactics that could be used in a campaign, so it’s critical that selecting winning tactics is always the last step in the campaign planning process. That way, you ensure the campaign is grounded in a specific strategy and used in the service of a specific goal. These tactics become the actual means used to secure a goal.
You will know that you have successfully clarified your goal and matched your strategy to your environment when you take up the discussion of tactics and realize most of the work has already been done for you. By this stage, most of the possible tactics will have been ruled out and you are left with the task of selecting the best possible tactics from a small list that fit the strategy and goals you have selected. We’ll also discuss the tactics framework our local leaders developed in an upcoming post.
Once you commit to not skipping steps, it’s amazing how many times you catch yourself and others talking tactics first. There is something very appealing about jumping straight into tactics because they are so concrete and directly connect to action. But all doing before thinking not only makes it less likely you will be successful in your advocacy, it ensures that even if you are successful you might not be happy with the end result.
To serve as a handy reminder, we’ve included a printout version of our “Don’t skip steps” poster. We’ve also included our campaign planning template that shows how each piece of the planning process connects. Please feel free to print out and share these tools as you plan your own campaigns!
In the next post I’ll tackle why we believe it’s so important to follow an open approach to building and running campaigns.