What is the right way to come up with a campaign strategy?

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The HUB has been running a Collaborative Strategy Workshop for some time, which presents activists with a series of questions and exercises designed to help groups arrive at solid strategies. Several participants have raised questions around the different ways the steps in the process should be ordered, and this article is an attempt to drill deeper and present different ideal scenarios based on a group's situation.

Distinguishing between a 'group orientation strategy' and a 'campaign strategy'

This first distinction points to two different approaches. What groups call a 'strategy session' might mean one of two things: Defining the strategic objectives of the group as a whole, or planning a particular campaign with a set target/issue focus and some kind of timeline. Each of these requires a slightly different process.

Group orientation strategy refers to an overall strategy for the group itself in the coming year(s). This is usually a broad-strokes and aspirational kind of thing and the purpose is getting the group to align on a common vision of how the broader systemic issue of "climate justice" will be taken on by activists through their organizing and mobilizing work.

A "campaign strategy" is required when deciding how to concentrate some of the group's energies on a particular issue focus or target, with some kind of concrete action plan.

Group orientation strategy

A natural first step in a group orientation strategy is to gather priorities from the group through an open dialogue related to aligning on a vision, mission and shared purpose, and then to arrive at a shared theory of change that will leverage the group's collective energy towards addressing these priorities.

For more on this topic, see the following wiki page: Aligning on group direction: how to decide what you want & how you'll get there

Campaign strategy

Lots of groups have an overall orientation with their theory of change that allows for many different points of focus (or targets). HUB Advisor Amara Possian has adapted Marshall Ganz's writings to create this tight definition of a "campaign": "A campaign is a sequence of tactics with a clear goal, demand and target that helps achieve a particular change."

Sitting down to create a campaign strategy assumes that group members are already aligned around a target or focus area... for example: shutting down fossil fuel projects in our region, Indigenous solidarity, antiracist action, fighting misogyny. Campaign strategy process should never begin with 'what should we focus on?' As opposed to group orientation, campaign strategy needs to get focused, specific about an achievable goal with a timeframe, and be grounded in reality. E.g. working with available resources and a solid power analysis of the target or system you are working to change.

Here are the steps recommended for a collaborative group campaign strategy discussion. Note that each one of these steps might require its own time and space:

Step 1: Asset mapping

Asset mapping is "the general process of identifying and providing information about a community [or group's] assets, or the status, condition, behavior, knowledge, or skills that a person, group, or entity possesses, which serves as a support, resource, or source of strength to one’s self and others in the community [or group]." -Healthy City

We are suggesting this as a first step because no matter how much power and assets the target or system you are confronting may have, your group can only design an effective campaign with the time, people, resources and relationships you actually have or have access to right now. Anything else is based on wishful thinking and therefore not "good strategy". This process should answer the following questions:

  • How much time do we have?
  • How many people are ready to move with us? (for real, not in our dreams)
  • How much money or other resources do we have?
  • What existing relationships can we leverage to get to influencers or decision makers? (journalists, politicians, community leaders etc.)

Outputs might take the form of notes, stickies or a big visual map that everyone can see. The important thing is that everyone understands what the group is working with when thinking through the next steps. Insight that could be drawn from a completed asset map might look like, for example, that there are teachers in the community who have brought their kids to support climate actions in the past, or who would be willing to share information about an upcoming event. We might conclude, for example, that a member of our group knows a retired teacher with extra craft supplies they aren't using. Perhaps we conclude that there are a number of groups in the community (E.g. students, doctors etc.) who can be easily reached at the locations they most frequent (at school, in hospitals etc). Maybe we determine that there's a proposal for city council that would be relevant for the group to act on, and which is time sensitive. 

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Step 2: Power analysis of the target or focus area

A power analysis session takes a hard look at the system you are working to change or the target you are trying to shift or influence. Here, your group is sizing up the people and structures you are up against and trying to find a 'chink in the armour' that your group, with the resources you have identified in the previous session, have a good chance of using to break through and achieve some wins towards your larger goal. A power analysis session typically includes the following questions:

  • Who holds the power (in the system-target we are focusing on)?
  • How many related systems uphold the power system?
  • What part of all the above would be likely to be moved, shifted, overcome by the efforts that our group can deploy (based on your asset map)

This process can turn into a really extended reflection or a simple and concrete planning session, depending on the ambition of the campaign being planned. Long or short, the important thing here is that this process be hyper-realist and give a ballpark idea of how much resistance the strategy will face when it tries to shift the target (political, corporate or other) or the system it is working to change. This exercise forces the group to confront the power differential between the target or system being worked on and the group’s own assets. For example, if our target is a local pipeline project, power holders might include Enbridge (an oil and gas company), the local police department and city council. We might determine based on both our power analysis and asset map that the city council is the best target to try to shift.

As a result of this comparison, the next strategic discussion should be: Given that we have x resources to work on shifting y target or system, what kind of change can we realistically achieve in the time we have?

See the following resource from the Commons Library with various power mapping tools and templates.

Step 3: Look for comparables

A really good way to make sure your campaign plans are anchored in reality is to look for similar campaigns that were deployed by other activists and to learn from how things went down. The following questions can guide this search:

  • Does your campaign look like anything else that was done before? (If not, discuss why)
  • When comparing to similar campaigns, how do the conditions around your campaign measure up? (assets, tactics, timespan etc.)
  • Can you identify the key learnings or ‘ingredients of success’ from past similar campaigns?
  • Bonus: Can you get in touch and talk to someone involved in past similar campaigns?

For example, many student divestment organizers employ similar tactics used by winning divestment campaigns, such as holding occupations like 'sit ins' or 'unlimited strikes.'

Step 4: Set your moments and milestones

Once your group has arrived at a campaign strategy that is grounded in your own resources and has found a realistic way to mobilize against a target or system you are focusing on, the next step is to plot some concrete steps into a timeline that takes you from where you are to where you want to get to, hopefully with a few small wins along the way.

The following questions can guide this search:

  • What are the stages that take us from where we are now to our end goal (nested goals)?
  • Given our assets, what stage or nested goal can we reach next?
  • How can we make reaching each stage a re-energizing moment for everyone while staying on track for the end goal?

For example, while the end goal of a defund the police campaign might look like a local police department being defunded by at least 50%, some nested goals might look like; getting police out of schools, increasing city council's voting support for defunding, convincing at least _____ community members to join your list serve etc.

Community testimonials on ordering their strategic process

Emily Thiessen (CJ Victoria and Our Time Vancouver) : "When we did [our strategy process], we ended up just skipping Theory of Change entirely because we had to cut something (and it was fine) but if we did do it the plan was to set goals for the year first and then come up with a theory of change *for* each goal. I've found before that things get mushy and vague when we've *started* with Theory of Change. We did: 1. agree on the process 2. asset mapping 3. power mapping 4. campaign goals 5. timeline."

Caitlin Chan (Climate Justice Montreal) "The general strategy for Theory of Change first is that filtering out is easier than adding in after. Perhaps, depending on the group situation, maybe starting in a specific root (goal) and sprouting out makes more sense."

Further resources

Campaign planner handouts by Campaigns Bootcamp.

If you have any suggested revisions or additional resources to share related to the above content, please email them to kenzie@lehub.ca.

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