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The Art of Advocacy


Three Essential Questions for Planning Strategy

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War


Democracy without activism is a hollow thing. Activism is what elevates democracy beyond just a periodic invitation to help elect a government. It is about all of us, looking together at the world around us, seeing what’s wrong and taking action together to make it right. How we undertake that activism is as diverse as the issues we work on and the political contexts in which our activism takes place. It can include everything from community education, to writing, to civil disobedience, and dozens of other approaches in between.

At the Democracy Center, for nearly 25 years we have worked to support people all across the world with one area of activism especially – advocacy. That too is a word with many different meanings. Most of all it means to have a specific objective in mind – passing a law or blocking one, demanding action from a community or a corporation, become an advocate for some specific vision and working with others to achieve it. Its targets can include Presidents and city councilors, billionaires and CEOs. Advocacy’s tools are diverse as well – research and protest, lobbying and grassroots organizing, media work and coalition building, and a lot more. Its practitioners range from young people taking action for the first time to long-time veterans who sit at the head of formidable organizations.

But how do we make sure that our advocacy is as effective and powerful as it can be? Strong advocacy is an art not a science. No one approach works equally in every context or on any issue. Advocacy has to be reinvented anew in every case. There is, however, one common thread that runs through effective citizen advocacy everywhere it is done and on every issue it touches, and that is strategy.

Too often we define our advocacy in terms of our tactics, the specific actions we will take to move our cause forward – a report, a demonstration, delivering testimony at a hearing, or staging a news event. Strategy is something different. Strategy is the wider view that threads all those tactics together into something coherent and powerful. It is a path of action that begins where you actually are, ends where you truly want to be, and has a plausible chance of taking you through the full journey from one to the other. It is also essential.

Video: A November 2016 webinar on Advocacy Strategy by Jim Shultz.

Two and a half millennia ago the Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, put his finger on an essential truth that applies just as precisely today to advocacy: Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. In the current moment we cannot afford for any of our advocacy work to become simply the noise before defeat. The stakes are too high, especially in the face of an accelerating global climate crisis and the relentless amassing of corporate power over our lives, politics and planet. We cannot afford to be anything less than as powerful as we can be and that requires that we think and act in a strategic way.

Across our long history the Democracy Center has been privileged to work with and support thousands of activists across five continents, to help them develop their advocacy strategies and build their campaigns. We’ve worked with grassroots health activists in apartheid South Africa, immigrant activists in California, grassroots communities in Bolivia, and children’s advocates in UNICEF all across the world, along with many others. We have also waged and led winning campaigns of our own.

Watching such a diversity of people and organizations struggle with what it means to do their advocacy in a strategic way has affirmed the idea that there is no one good way to do it. But what we have found is that there is a set of three universal questions that are essential and that help activists think and act in a strategic way. We have seen, over and over again, that asking and answering these three questions in an honest and methodical way can make a huge difference:

  • What do you want?
  • What is the political map you need to navigate?
  • What is your plan of action to win?

Here we offer those strategy planning questions to our friends and allies in elaborated form, as a contribution to the spirit and the work of strategic advocacy toward a more just world and a healthy planet. We offer this tool under a Creative Commons license and you should feel free to copy it, publish it, modify it, and use it however you wish. Spread it around to anyone who will apply it toward the right goals. Please just give us credit and let people know it came from the Democracy Center.

Jim Shultz, executive director

…a Final Note

Public activism is a noble act, and a difficult one. We may pour our heart and soul into an activist campaign and after months and even years of effort it seems very little has changed. Then again, we might end up changing the world or at least some meaningful part of it. Advocacy, in the end, is an act of faith.

A half century ago, speaking about the challenges of activism in his time, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The shape of the world today does not afford us the luxury of soft-mindedness,” and he called on his brethren in the civil rights movement to have “soft hearts and hard heads.” Taking a strategic approach to our advocacy – being clear and thoughtful about what we are aiming for, examining carefully the political dynamics we are dealing with, and planning our way forward with careful attention; that is how we can combine the soft-heartedness of our commitment to justice with the hard-headed thinking it takes to actually win.