The easiest mistake to make in advocacy is to move too quickly from the selection of goals to a discussion of tactics. This leads advocates to choose tactics without understanding how well they fit with a winning strategy or how effective they will be at reaching a specific goal. Skipping over strategy to talk tactics is like skipping the creation of blueprints and going straight to handing out tools to the carpenters building a house.
Choosing the right strategy takes time. The more thought you put into the planning of your campaign the more successful you will be. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensible.” We put that quote at the top of every campaign plan we create. And we don’t move on to a discussion of tactics until we are confident we have selected the strategies that best maximize our odds of success.
Advocacy is complicated, but there are rules to successfully navigating the terrain. Once you know the rules, everything makes a lot more sense. Through decades of social science research examining thousands of advocacy campaigns across hundreds of issues, a few key strategies have emerged that regularly get results. The four-part strategic framework below builds upon this literature and the work of political scientist David Fairman, Ph.D, the associate director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, to organize them into a framework for action.
In this strategy, advocates attempt to use their understanding of the interests of incumbent leaders to alter the status quo through trading and compromise. We may not like it, but as advocates its crucial to understand that bargaining among political elites is the main way in which most public policy debates are decided in our country.
An example of one of the larger elite negotiations in recent years is the development and passage of the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”). Healthcare was regularly at or near the top of issues concerning voters and was a major issue under debate in the presidential race. The problem of growing costs and large numbers of uninsured Americans were framed in a way that was easy to understand. Both the President and key members of Congress had a strong political incentive to get a bill through. And the effort was driven forward in part by an enormous lobbying effort backed by stakeholder groups with major political clout.
This strategy focuses on a large number of people getting organized over time to change the status quo in profound ways. This is the advocacy strategy that is often associated with major advancements in human rights.
An example of a successful social movement in recent years is the push for marriage equality. The advocacy effort was framed early on as a fight for equal rights, and in marriage equality there was a clear call to action. Advocacy groups made a major effort to amplify the injustice of not allowing loving couples to get married and to organize those who support marriage equality into a powerful force for change.
In this strategy, experts debate ideas over time and either through convergence or consensus end up influencing policy.
Perhaps the biggest policy debate being driven forward by the convergence of experts in our time is global warming. The issue is straightforward in definition but rests on the results of complex research and analysis. Over the past two decades there has been a consensus of expert opinion on the existence of global warming and its causes.
This strategy relies on change emerging through trial and error, with good ideas being tested and refined by practitioners. The best of those ideas become common practices and through dialogue with policymakers, they eventually become law.
An example of an emergent network from the field of education is the issue of blended learning. It’s an area in which numerous practitioners are engaged in testing out innovative approaches to technology-supported learning. Teachers and school leaders working on blended learning have connected together to share best practices. And increasingly, policymakers are looking to these examples to help inform policy.
You might be wondering which of these four strategies is most effective. The simple answer is that all four of them can be very effective or very ineffective depending on the context in which they are used.
Fortunately, researchers studying advocacy have also identified the most important conditions, or success factors, that must be met in order to be successful in each of these four strategies. These success factors can be thought of as a checklist you review as you are building your campaign.
Click here for a downloadable version of the strategy checklist we use in our campaign planning process. As you fill out the checklist you might see a clear winner emerging among the four strategies, or perhaps that there are a few strategies where the success factors are already in place. (If you have checked all the boxes, you might be a little optimistic about the conditions on the ground in your community).
We also created a BuzzFeed-style quiz to give you a chance to play around with these success factors—as well as cat pictures—called “Which Advocacy Strategy Are You?”
Once you have identified the one or two most promising strategies for your goal, then—and only then—are you ready to talk tactics, the subject of my next blog post.