As organizers, we frequently work on important and urgent issues. When a problem arises, there is often a temptation to jump right in to solve it. While this is a good impulse, it’s also important that we take a step back and do some strategic planning in order to solve the problem for the long term.
This guide will use the example of classroom censorship to walk through the process of designing an advocacy campaign from scratch. These steps can be applied to any issue area or topic to help you leverage resources into the power you need to create meaningful and lasting change.
Step 1: Identify the problem, people, and solution
When you’re developing a campaign, the first thing to ask yourself is, what is our problem? If you’re developing a campaign around Right to Learn, your problem might be that your school board is planning on voting to ban a handful of diverse books.
Next, who are your people? As organizers, people are always at the center of our work. That’s why it’s important to identify a constituency, a group of people who learn to stand together to decide, assert, and act upon their own goals. Organizing is about supporting a constituency to leverage their own power to solve a problem impacting them. If you’re organizing against a book ban at your school board, your constituency is likely going to be students at your local schools. You could also think more specifically about which students will be most impacted by these bans, particularly students of color and LGBTQ+ students.
Once you’ve identified the specific problem your community is facing, it’s important to ground yourself in a vision for the world you want to live in. What would our lives be like if this problem was solved? This is your opportunity to think big and freedom dream. For example, in our ideal world, all students would have the opportunity to engage with books that represent their diverse identities, free from political interference.
Then, it’s time to get practical and explore the reasons why the problem hasn’t been solved yet. What barriers – whether they be ideological, political, or interpersonal – are standing in the way of that vision? Finally, start to think about what it would take to solve this problem, specifically what we can do differently from any previous attempts to address it. Keep this question in mind as you continue to think about planning your campaign.
Step 2: Establish strategic goals
Any strong campaign needs a clear goal, an idea of what it is aiming to achieve. In order to plan a campaign, it’s important to think of both long and short term goals. A long-term goal is focused on the ultimate outcome of your campaign, a concrete solution to the problem you are trying to address.
A long-term goal should…
- Be measurable
- Focus effort
- Motivate participants
- Leverage resources
- Build capacity
- Be able to be built on or emulated
For example, your long term goal could be to organize students in your district to convince school board members to vote “no” on the book ban.
While this goal is important and exciting, it also doesn’t tell you much about the path to achieving your goal. Here’s where you can think about short-term goals: What steps can you take to accomplish your long-term goal? What milestones will show you are making progress? You might be one step closer when the first group of students show up to speak at a meeting, and even closer when a certain movable school board member publicly commits to voting against the ban.
Step 3: Decide on your theory of change
Now that you know your problem is, your people, and your goals, it’s important to think about the power dynamics you will be dealing with. To decide on your “theory of change”, you first have to figure out whether the campaign is primarily focused on harnessing the existing power of your people, or challenging a target to create meaningful change.
Power with: If your people already have the power to create the change they want without accessing anyone else’s resources or power – and you just need to get organized to make it happen – you’ll use a “power with” theory of change. You could run a “power with” campaign if you want to turn out young voters for a school board election to flip a critical seat.
Remind yourself who your constituency is: in this case, it might be young voters and activists. Within your constituency, start to think about who the “leaders” might be – the folks who are at the forefront of organizing the campaign. If you’re working through this toolkit with a group of people, you already have your leadership. But, if you’re looking at this by yourself, remember that no one person can do this alone, and start to think about who could support and model your leadership.
Then, who are the other key players who could play a role in your campaign? It’s especially important to think about your opposition – individuals or groups who will stand in your way – and allies – people who may not be directly involved in the campaign, but would support or encourage your work (i.e. local politicians, teachers, alumni). What resources and power do your opposition and allies have access to, and how can you leverage or challenge that?
Power over: When your people need access to resources or power held by others to achieve your goal, you’re using a “power over” theory of change. You’d use the “power over” theory of change if you’re trying to combat a book ban at the school board level. Ultimately, the board members have the power to decide on the bill, so you’ll have to leverage the voices of the people they listen to in order to make sure they vote the right way.
Step 4: Identify your target and target strategy
In a “power over” scenario, our target is the person or people who are capable of giving us what we want. In this example, your primary targets would be the school board. Here’s what you should know about your targets:
- Are they likely to support or oppose your efforts? Can you find their voting record (if they’re a public official) or any public comments they’ve made on related issues?
- Are they up for re-election or vulnerable in any way?
- Who or what has the ability to influence them? Who are their top donors? What schools did they attend? Do they have loyalty to any other issues or organizations that conflict with yours? These people or organizations may be your secondary targets!
Using this information, you can make a “power map” to visually understand where your targets stand on an issue, and what you can do to influence them. Here’s an example:
Now that you’ve identified where your targets stand – and who has the ability to influence their stances – it’s time to think about what strategy you’re going to run against the most powerful decision-makers (your primary targets). It’s not always so cut and dry, but there are typically four types of target strategies, which depend on how both the public and the target view your campaign.
- Hero: You’ll run this type of campaign If your target is supportive and the community is supportive. In this scenario, we would work to praise the leadership of the target, and give them an opportunity to benefit from positive publicity and image building as a result of acting in favor of our campaign goal. Basically, we would want to build them up as a champion of the people on whatever important issue you are working on.
- Pressure: You’ll run this type of campaign if your target opposes your efforts, but the community supports it. Here we would draw attention to the fact that the target doesn’t represent the will of the people. We might make phone calls, write letters, and hold press conferences in which we call on the target to change their tune and endorse this publicly popular campaign goal. This would be a good time to know if the target is in an elected position and, if so, whether they have an election approaching. Elected officials with upcoming elections tend to be quite vulnerable to public opinion and pressure.
- Political Cover: If you find yourself in a situation in which the target is with you but the community is against you, we run a whole different kind of campaign, using a “political cover” strategy. In order to provide political cover for our target to do what we want without facing too much public backlash, there are a few things you can do. You could rally the small but passionate group of people that do support the campaign and use social media, letters to the edits, calls, letters, rallies, and other tactics to make their voices appear disproportionately large. This way, when the target acts in your interest, you will have provided them with a bit of protection, making it seem as though there was more public support for the issue then there actually was.
- Educational: The trickiest situation to be in is one where neither the target nor the community support your efforts. In this situation, your main hope would be to start with public education. Find a way to frame the issue both honestly and from a perspective the community will be receptive to. Then, get out and talk to your neighbors, friends, co-workers, etc. Put together a small but mighty group that will continue to fight to turn the tides on the issue. Another way to approach this situation is to see if there is a different target or constituency that you could work with to accomplish your goal.
Step 5: Choose tactics to help you win
In organizing, tactics are the actual actions you will take to help accomplish your goal. When choosing tactics for your campaign, you want to stay focused. Your tactics should flow directly from your strategy and ultimately help you achieve your goals. A powerful tactic should…
- Be strategic: Make good use of your resources and help you achieve concrete and measure progress towards your long and short term campaign goals.
- Strengthen your group or organization: Be cognizant of your team’s capacity, and help recruit new people to join your efforts.
- Support leadership development: Help organizers and constituents build new skills, develop new relationships, and take on increasing leadership.
- Strike a balance between impact and feasibility: Be both effective and something your team is bought into.
Organizers commonly use lobbying, canvassing, phone banking, posting on social media, and putting on a rally or protest as tactics. To find specific information and examples of what tactics you might use for a Right to Learn campaign, take a look at the next section on actions and tactics!
Step 6: Sum it all up into a sentence you can share with others
At this point, you’ve done all of the hard work in planning your campaign, but you still need to figure out how we can share all of this important information with other people. After all, if you can’t share our vision with other people and recruit them to join you, the campaign won’t get very far. This is where an “organizing or a campaign sentence” comes in handy. The structure is:
We are organizing (who) ____ to pursue (what purpose) ____ by (how: theory of change and/or strategy) ____ to achieve (what objective) ____ by (what date) ____.