An activism campaign is like a Choose Your Own Adventure where you know the social change goal you want to achieve, have control over your own actions, but have no control over how the external world will respond. How can you make the best decisions possible, given this uncertainty? You use the tools of theory of change, strategy, tactics, and tasks.
Together, these nested elements will help you analyze your context, choose a path, choose actions to move along that path, take those actions, and reflect on the effects to take more effective action.
Components of an Activism Campaign
What are these activism campaign components? How do they fit together?
- A theory of change is a series of causal steps between the present and a future goal.
- The theory of change will imply a number of strategies to achieve that goal, each of which will take a different path through the causal steps.
- Each strategy will be implemented through a number of tactics, actions meant to cause the changes laid out in the theory of change.
- To carry out each tactic, practical work is needed. This practical work is a task.
The relationship between these four pieces is illustrated in the diagram below. As you move from theory of change to tasks, the elements become smaller and more concrete.
Social change is really complex, as you know. To move through this process for a real social issue, such as prison reform, institutionalized racism, gun violence, climate change, or transgender rights would take many many blog posts to explain.
The purpose of this post is to explain these steps so you can quickly see how they fit together. For this reason, we are going to choose a much simpler goal to achieve: creating an emergency wedding cake.
A Delicious Example
Here’s the set-up. You’ve been helping your friend plan her/his/their wedding in San Diego. You arrive in town at 8am from your home town of Portland, the day before the wedding . At 10am the baker (an old friend from college) calls you to say they are stuck in the Cleveland airport due to a snow storm. Their flight has been delayed until after the wedding. There’s no way they are going to be able to get to San Diego in time to make the cake.
Here is your theory of change on wedding cake creation. (See more theory of change visualizations here.)
The theory of change shows many paths to your cake (goal). In fact, theories of change are known for being twisty and complex, because they are supposed to take into account the complex context in which you are trying to achieve your goal. This theory of change illustrates five possible paths to achieve your goal.
What are these five paths exactly? Do we know them by a different name? Yes, we do. Each path is a strategy. Let’s describe them:
- Big $$$ Strategy: This is the simplest strategy, though also the most expensive (as is common in life). You find a local pastry chef and pay them as much money as they require in order to make a wedding cake on really short notice. You end up with a beautiful and expensive cake.
- Some $$ Strategy: Now we are beginning to negotiate our requirements based on available resources, as also happens in real life. For slightly less money you can hire someone with some baking skill (maybe a caterer instead of a pastry chef). They will provide you with a competent – though not super fancy – cake at a reasonable price.
- Know-a-Chef Strategy: It is possible that you could get the pastry chef to do the cake without paying a lot of money if you have some relationship to them and can ask them as a personal favor.
- Aunt Cheryl Strategy: Another relationship strategy, this one likely even cheaper. You ask a family member with baking experience (Aunt Cheryl) to make the cake.
- DIY Strategy: If all else fails, you could always make the cake yourself. You have no skill as a baker, but you can follow a recipe. This would also be relatively cheap because you only need to pay for ingredients. But it could also come out horribly wrong, because you really don’t know what the fuck you are doing.
So, these are your pathways through the theory of change. These are your strategies. Which one will you choose?
The criteria you want to use to pick your strategy is one that offers maximum benefit with minimum cost. You most beneficial outcome is the “fancy cake” and your lowest cost is to get that fancy cake at low or no coast through a personal connection to a pastry chef. That’s strategy #3.
What tactics will you use to carry out this strategy? How will you identify a local pastry chefs with a personal connection to you? (You don’t know any as of now.) Here are some tactics you could use:
- Contact All Guests: “Is There a Pastry Chef in Attendance?”
- Benefit: Wide coverage quickly, it’s possible (but unlikely) that one is a pastry chef
- Cost: Everyone freaks out because there is no cake. Also, it’s unlikely that one is a pastry chef (ie, you’d be wasting your time).
- Contact the Original Pastry Chef
- Benefit: You already know her and trust her skill. She probably feels super guilty about being stuck in Cleveland and not being able to show up. There is a decent possibility she will know people in her profession in San Diego.
- Cost: Worst case scenario, you pay full price to this local pastry chef, but you may not have to if our Cleveland connection can get you a discount.
- Contact the Venue
- Benefit: The wedding is being hosted in a venue that often hosts weddings. These staff at the venue are sure to know local pastry chefs.
- Cost: This isn’t a very close connection. The pastry chef is likely to charge you full price.
- Contact Locals for a Referral
- Benefit: You are not from San Diego, but it’s likely that someone in the wedding party is local and knows someone who got married recently who could give you a referral.
- Cost: Again, this isn’t a very close connection. The pastry chef is likely to charge you full price.
You decide to go with tactic #2 since the potential benefit is highest (a fancy cake at low cost) and the risk is negligible.
Tasks: Doing the Work
Implementing a strategy means doing tasks. As you move from theory of change to strategy to tactics to tasks, the element get increasingly simple and increasingly obvious. This is because by making choices you are removing options. Less options mean easier choices. You already chose a strategy and a first tactic. Now you just need to decide how to implement it. You need to contact the baker. How will you do it? Email is an option, but since time is of the essence, why don’t you call?
- Go back through your recent calls and find the number of the pastry chef.
- Call her and and ask her to contact a replacement in San Diego.
That’s pretty easy.
You call the original pastry chef in Cleveland and ask her if she knows any great pastry chefs in Sean Diego.
Congratulations, she does! (See how this is like Choose Your Own Adventure?)
Now you can ask her (guilt her) into calling that chef on your behalf.
She will. Yay!
Unfortunately, the one pastry chef she knows is already baking for another wedding and can’t take on your job.
When a tactic doesn’t give you the outcome you want, you will need to move on to another tactic. In activism, it is almost guaranteed that your first tactic will not result in achievement of your goal. So don’t be discouraged if a tactic doesn’t work. Expect it. Evaluate why it it didn’t work, and move one on to another tactical option.
Among the tactics above, only contacting all the wedding guests seems like an obviously bad idea. Contacting local wedding guests or contacting the venue to get a referral to a local professional pastry chef could both be good options.
Often the best tactic is not obvious. When you are unsure which tactic to choose, add another criterion for evaluation. The current criteria are Benefit and Cost. You could also add Time and Financial Resources. Getting a referral from a guest may be less expensive than getting a referral from a venue, but it will almost certainly take more time. Since the staff of the venue work with caterers all the time, they could probably hook you up with multiple chefs quickly, but you’d also probably pay a high price for that convenience. Is time or money a bigger constraint for you?
Let’s say that you contact multiple local pastry chefs through different avenues of referral and they are either not available or way too expensive. You are not going to get a pastry chef to make that cake. Time to try a different cake strategy.
When a tactic doesn’t provide the effect you want, you change tactics. When a series of tactics don’t achieve the effect you want, it’s time to change strategies. Changing strategies means that you decide to achieve your goal using a different path. Though changing strategies can be time-consuming, you need to be honest with yourself if your current strategy isn’t working.
Because you know that you can’t bake, you decide to ask other guests that you personally if any of them have baking skill. A few do and you help them. You choose a simple but yummy design. It’s not fancy, but everyone thinks it’s cute. It tastes good too. Although your campaign didn’t go as expected, you still achieved your goal through analysis, action, and reflection.
A Collective Adventure
As you can see, designing an activism campaign requires a lot of skills:
- You need to be creative and observant to develop a theory of change.
- You need to be analytical to look at the many paths through the theory of change and pick the one that offers the most benefits with the fewest costs as your strategy.
- You need to be creative again when you are deciding which tactics will allow you to carry out that strategy.
- You will need a number of skills to carry out your tactics, ranging from poster-makers to live-tweeters to bridge aerialists.
- You need to be hardworking and well-organized to ensure all the tasks necessary to carry out a tactic are accomplished.
- You need to be cool-headed and unsentimental when evaluating whether or not a tactic or strategy is working. If it isn’t, you need to make a change.
Who has all these skills? No one does, obviously. That is why activism campaigns are carried out by teams. Now you have some idea of what an activism campaign entails. The next step is getting others involved. The adventure is yours.