Advocacy Strategies: Approach Change Holistically

Apr 23, 2020 by Sophie Thurber

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Building Advocacy Campaigns on Winning Advocacy Strategies

Advocacy campaigns should be built on advocacy strategies. Simple, right? But creating a strong foundation for an advocacy campaign is sometimes easier said than done.

If you’re planning an advocacy campaign, you’re probably pretty passionate about an issue. Make sure all that time and effort (not to mention the unavoidable frustration that comes with any campaign) are invested in a campaign that has a fighting chance to succeed. With some careful planning and resilience, you can make the change you want to see in the world. So, take the time to carefully pinpoint your exact goals and examine what the landscape currently looks like.

Let’s start at the beginning: what do we mean by “advocacy strategies”? We are  talking about your overall plan to achieve a win—how you think you can chart a path to victory. 

How do you come up with advocacy strategies? I’m going to answer this question with more questions (yep, I’m doing it). Your advocacy strategies should answer some important questions (including, but not limited to):

  • Who are the relevant decision makers you need to target?
    • Who among them is movable and who is likely not
  • What kinds of information will be important to those decision makers? 
    • Are they in a position where 100 calls from constituents is a huge number, or do they get thousands of calls? 
    • Are they focused on bringing jobs to their district and would your policy help them do that in a meaningful way?
    • Will your objective help them create a more efficient budget and eliminate waste?
  • What is your timeline and what are the important dates within it?
    • Are there filing dates?
    • Are there important community events?
    • Are there election dates that may impact your work?

From there, your advocacy strategies should outline how you’re going to move the right decision makers. This gets us to advocacy tactics (for some additional discussion on this topic, check out The Difference Between Advocacy Strategy and Advocacy Tactics).

So how do you pair tactics with your advocacy strategies? To make sure you develop strong advocacy strategies and that each tactic you employ leads you towards a win, follow these five steps (in this order!) from The Midwest Academy (with some TCW editorializing, because, obvi, I can’t resist):

1. Goals

  • Start by writing down your overarching goal, but don’t stop there! The best advocacy strategies are underpinned by the idea that change is incremental. You should identify several short-term goals that fit into the larger picture and can count as wins along the way. Personally, I think this is one of the most important things you can do. Think about framing these incremental goals both within your policy objectives and within your organizational objectives. If you don’t reach your overarching goal right away, what gains could you walk away with that would help you continue the fight? What smaller policy changes could you achieve that would help pave the way for the bigger change you’re fighting for? 
  • Make sure you’re clear about what achieving your goal will actually do. Try to make your campaign about more than spreading awareness whenever possible: What will the outcome be? Who will the outcome effect? What’s the point? How do those incremental goals tangibly advance the larger one? Spreading awareness is great (people need to know about your issue before they can care about it), but just because someone knows about your issue doesn’t mean they’re going to then do something that will help you move the ball forward. Make sure you think through this piece of the puzzle carefully.

2. Organizational Considerations

  • This step should result in a giant list with lots of numbers! List out every single resource you have: staff, facilities, tools, etc. What’s your budget? How much do you think you’ll be able to raise? Everything on this list should include a quantity. This will give you a baseline idea of who and what you have to work with. I would also urge you to be really honest in this process and make sure you’re planning with resources you know you are able to dedicate at the time you’re making the plan. All too often I see plans that are built on a shaky foundation of “If I can get these nine things lined up, then my organization (or coalition partners) will be willing to dedicate more resources.” It is true that sometimes you have to show people that your cause has legs before you can get the resources that come with organizational buy-in, but there are also times when those resources are simply not going to materialize. I think is particularly important when you’re working in an organization that balances state affiliates or locals and a national staff. It’s better to plan for the lean program and end up with more support than you anticipated than to build a foundation that will ultimately have big holes in it.
  • Next, take a moment to consider whether there are any internal problems within your campaign that need to be addressed if you’re going to succeed. In my experience, one of the trickiest (and most common) dynamics to navigate arises when organizations are siloed and different departments have different understandings of goals, responsibilities, and scope for their participation in a campaign. Take the time to really assess how your advocacy strategies and tactics will play out given your circumstances and make sure everyone is aligned when it comes to understanding the path you’re taking. 

3. Constituents, Allies, and Opponents

  • First, think about who will have a positive interest in your advocacy issue. Which groups might be willing to partner with you? What kinds of resources or support might they be able to contribute to the campaign? On this point I’d also advise thinking carefully and critically. Just because you think you’re championing the right thing doesn’t mean other people will agree—even if they do, it doesn’t mean they will commit resources to you. Perform an honest assessment of who you think your partners will be and have frank conversations with those decision makers. Additionally, if someone says no, don’t assume that they’ll eventually jump on the bandwagon. Optimism is a wonderful quality (especially in the business of politics and advocacy), but it’s got to be paired with a heavy dose of pragmatism, especially when you’re trying to plan for resource allocation.
  • Next, consider who will likely be opposed to your advocacy campaign. How much power do they have? Are they likely to fight back, and how? Who do they influence? How much money and/or organizational resources are they likely to dedicate to opposing your efforts?

4. Targets

  • Who exactly has the power to make what you want happen? I say "exactly" because this needs to be clearly defined—not a group or organization, but the people within a group or organization who can enact the change(s) you want. If you’re worried about fake news on social media, it would be pretty difficult to try to influence all of Facebook. You wouldn’t know where to direct your efforts. It’s a lot easier to say you want to influence Mark Zuckerberg. Know who you’re targeting.
  • Sometimes, you don’t have much clout with your primary target, or your efforts aren’t working on them. That’s why you need to identify a secondary target. This person is someone who has more of a connection to, or power over, your primary target than you do. By working with them, you might have a better shot at ultimately getting through to your true target. In the Mark Zuckerberg example, your secondary target might be a senior-level employee at Facebook. 

5. Tactics

  • Tactics are planned actions based on what you know about your goals, your organization’s resources, support and opposition, and targets. What are the things you are actually going to do to move decision makers and supporters in your direction? Do not decide on a tactic before thinking through the other categories! Your tactic will not be as strategic for your advocacy campaign.
  • Tactics are directed at a specific target for a clear purpose. Ask yourself: Does this tactic make move me closer to fulfilling my goals? Does this tactic make sense for my budget and resources? Doing something just because you can isn’t a good enough reason to do it. Your advocacy campaign should be designed to trigger the desired response from your targets. For instance, if one of your goals is to build a list of supporters you can turn to when you need people to take action in the long term, Facebook conversion ads probably make more sense than running programmatic display ads. If it’s really important for a CEO of a particular company to see your message within a tight timeframe, geo-fencing and/or IP targeting may be a better option for you than running a print ad.
  • Possible tactics include, but are not limited to: press events, digital ads, meetings with key influencers, direct mail, lobby days, phone banking, canvassing, acquisition, etc. Just to hammer it home again, make sure that your tactic is chosen with your goals in mind. 

Have questions about advocacy strategies and running an advocacy campaign? Ask them here. 

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