I work at a firm in the business of issue advocacy—changing the way people act and think about social and political issues. We are always eager to improve our craft and learn from the field to create the most impactful advocacy campaigns. We appreciate that issue advocacy is part art and part science, and there is so much to learn from the campaigns we’ve won, lost, and admired from afar.
Below, you’ll find a distillation of our learnings on running an effective advocacy campaign. These eight principles were derived from our own experience running advocacy campaigns on behalf of our clients and based on extensive research we conducted with support from the Omidyar Network. This research involved interviewing the leaders who have led some of the decade’s most impactful campaigns to see what we could learn about their strategies, identify key patterns, and develop a blueprint for what makes a successful campaign. The Fighting for Change Report captured our research alongside a set of interviews available on our website.
The saying “fortune favors the bold” captures the essence of this principle. Successful campaigns always start with a vision. A bold, transformational goal that challenges the status quo in a way that was once unimaginable. A bold vision can excite a political base and encourage supportive bystanders to take action. This reality is particularly true when it comes to motivating young people and first-time activists. History also has shown that a big, bold idea can create a big enough tent to include organizations that aren’t always aligned to work together towards a common goal. We studied two campaigns that successfully created a bold vision: the campaign to halt the Keystone Pipeline (not merely making it safer) and the push for universal public health care (Obamacare).
Framing, simply put, is how we understand the world and our place in it. Good framing identifies a problem, suggests a solution, and motivates people to demand change. Effective framing will also determine the “good guys” and the “villains” and appeal to emotion, logic, or both. Campaigns can successfully frame an issue by connecting it to people’s values and worldviews and be relevant to what they already know and believe. Most advocacy campaigns are rooted in complicated and nuanced policy discussions, but useful framing distills the effort into a relatable and accessible idea.
Access to resources, both human and material, can decide the fate of a campaign. Regardless of the campaign’s size and shape, it must leverage its unique resources to develop its power. All successful campaigns identify their superpower and leverage it consistently and intentionally. It is a common mistake for campaigns to assume that having more money equals having more power. While money can provide more material resources, it can never replace tenacity, passion, and zeal. Examples of campaigns that effectively leveraged their power included Net Neutrality and the Fight for $15. Black Lives Matter and the youth climate activists are also two current examples to learn from.
Influential leaders have always been able to make or break campaigns. Charismatic leaders who are exceptional strategic thinkers, have a clear vision, and possess high emotional intelligence can rally and empower supporters and keep campaigns on track despite setbacks. Today, successful campaign leaders look very different from those of the past. Instead of having the traditional model of a top-down CEO role, we see more campaigns with less hierarchical structures (see the Structure Principle below). Campaigns with exceptional leaders include Health Care for America Now and the “Vote Leave” Brexit effort.
The ancient philosopher Seneca once mused that “luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Campaigns can be won or lost because of that “opportunity,” also known as timing. Timing is an art and a science; campaigns need to identify the window of opportunity and then leverage it. While campaigns don’t necessarily create these windows, successful campaigns are prepared and ready to capitalize on them. Two great examples we’ve studied include the Tea Party and soda tax campaigns.
Campaigns have never existed in a vacuum, and the best-planned campaigns have to respond to unexpected challenges and changing environments. How campaigns adapt to the unexpected—pivoting strategy and taking advantage of new opportunities—can mean the difference between success and failure. Campaigns need to get information in real-time and be humble enough to know how to adapt.
Organizational structure isn’t the flashiest component of a campaign, but it can be the key to success when done right. Campaigns that have combined strong leadership, created clear information channels, sustained an extensive grassroots network, and built strong mutual trust have been incredibly successful. We’ve also noticed that current campaigns tend to be nonlinear, less hierarchical, adaptable, and more strategic in leveraging all of their assets. Two great examples are Health Care for America Now and Net Neutrality.
Savvy campaigns generate pressure and sustain momentum through smart tactics that remind key audiences of what is at stake. Whether it’s targeting corporate CEOs through protests or flooding lawmakers’ offices with letters—successful campaigns are unrelenting when applying constant online and offline pressure to decision-makers. There are many current examples of campaigns that are constantly reinventing how to build pressure—from Black Lives Matter to March for Our Lives to the global youth-led climate strikes.