Advocacy Strategy in 8 Basic Questions

Over 4.3 million people ride the subway in New York City every day. A proud subculture of nearly a quarter million New Yorkers ride their bikes in the city every day as well. Our friends at Transportation Alternatives (TA)—a non-profit membership organization that advocates for safer and better access to bicycling, walking and public transit in Manhattan and its boroughs—are trying to figure out how to tap into the activist potential of this massive universe of people.

When Grassroots Solutions first met Transportation Alternatives last fall, the TA team had built an impressive base of supporters through their “Rider Rebellion Campaign,” which pivots on getting New Yorkers to sign a Transit Riders’ Bill of Rights. After an initial year of campaigning, they had laid a good groundwork. But their numbers were still small, and they had been so focused on getting people to sign their petition that they hadn’t focused on what they were offering their new activists for the longer-term. It was a great time to take a pause, celebrate what they had accomplished in their first year of the campaign, and step back to ask some longer-term strategic questions about their campaign.

In the course of working with the talented Transportation Alternatives team, we found ourselves revisiting several core questions that regularly come up on our strategy assignments with advocacy clients – whether they’re large or small, and whether they’re running campaigns for the first or the twentieth time.

  1. What is your campaign’s or organization’s theory of change?
    A theory of change is bigger than an action plan: it’s a logic model that maps your process of change from beginning to end. The map works backwards from the outcomes you’re seeking, stepping back to name the building blocks that will be essential to get you from here to there, and being explicit with your assumptions about how you think change is going to happen.
  2. What is your campaign’s “superpower”
    Defining a superpower is about the campaign’s value proposition – the quality or characteristic that is going to compel people to join you. What unique skill/perspective/asset does the campaign bring to your advocacy space that no one else does?
  3. What is your campaign’s overarching goal?
    A campaign goal must be selective, strategic, focused and winnable.
  4. What incremental objectives support your goal?
    Objectives are the stepping stones on the path to achieving your goal. They should be more bite-sized and more specific than your goal, and they should be instrumentally relevant to winning.
  5. What are your campaign’s core strategies?
    Strategies answer the question “how.” They show how you’re going to approach the targets of the campaign, what levers need to be pushed to win, and how you’re going to push them.
  6. Who do you need to power your campaign?
    “Anybody who cares about my issue” is generally not a good answer to this question. Examine the interests, positions and conflicts of your stakeholders and targets. Think strategically about which constituencies could be most instrumental to achieving some or all of your objectives, or who could have the greatest multiplier effect.
  7. How will the campaign engage its supporters? How will the tactics get executed?
    What kinds of action opportunities is the campaign offering constituents, members, or volunteers? The era of one-size-fits-all campaigns is over – your campaign tactics should be customized and meet your people where they are in order to offer them meaningful ways to get involved.
  8. How will you measure effectiveness?
    What does success look like for each of your objectives? How will you know if you were successful?

If you’re just starting a campaign, your answers to these questions can help set up the fundamental building blocks for your campaign strategy. If you’re in the midst of one, it’s often useful to step back mid-point and re-visit your answers to these questions in order to reality test your assumptions and make adjustments for the next phase. While this is certainly not an exhaustive list or magic bullet, in our experience, these questions have proven to be a tried and true support in making sure that your campaign is focused and winnable.