Choose Your Own Activism Adventure (With Cake)

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.

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 3.33.52 PM

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


fancy professional cake

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.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 4.51.49 PM


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.

Identifying Strategies

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:

  1. Big $$$ Strategy: This is the simplest strategy, though also the most expensive (as is common in life).  You find a local pastry chef and pay them as much money as they require in order to make a wedding cake on really short notice.  You end up with a beautiful and expensive cake.
  2. Some $$ 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Identifying Tactics

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

Your Tasks:

  1. Go back through your recent calls and find the number of the pastry chef.
  2. 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.

Changing Tactics

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?

Changing Strategies

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.


cute little homemade cake

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.

photos: Flickr/Wicked Little Cake Company; Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Tactical vs. Strategic Success: Why Both Matter

by Mary Joyce

Imagine you want to win a race. You begin training every day, change your diet, and greatly reduce your time. You’re in the best shape of your life. However, on the day on the race, you finish two seconds late and lose the race. Instead of being the guy in the middle leaping over the finish line, you’re the guy in the white shirt who almost made it. Was this a success or a failure?

In digital activism, this kind of situation occurs all the time. Activists are successful in completing the tactics they have laid out for themselves (getting thousands of people in the street, developing a coherent message, building a flexible organization) but they fail in their ultimate goal (overthrowing a dictatorial government, throwing out the results of a rigged election). The 2009 post-election mobilization in Iran is a perfect example: successful mobilization, failure in goal of overturning election results.

Currently the value of a digital activism is in the eye of the beholder. The optimists say that the mobilization made it a success. The pessimists and skeptics say that the mobilization was a failure because they did not achieve their ultimate goal.

But both sides can be right if we look at this empirically as tactical success vs. strategic success. A strategy is a plan that includes a series of actions taken to achieve a goal. Each action is a tactic. So if your goal is to win a race, your tactics would be to train, to go on a special diet, to measure your times to track your progress. Likewise, if your goal is to overturn an election result, you may decide that taking to the street, to show the government that you do not accept the result, is a good tactic. Maybe you are wrong.

Often, when a digital tactic succeeds, the technology worked, but the strategy was somehow flawed. We need to know how and when the technology works so that best practices can be replicated. We need to pay attention to tactical successes. But we also need to remember that tactical success + strategic failure is not good enough. Digital technology provides that means for activists to record, process, reveal, co-create, request, and aggregate in a way never before possible. But technology doesn’t solve the strategic questions of target, audience, message, opportunity structure, alliance-building, isolation of opponents… the list goes on.

A failure of strategy of is not a failure of technology. It just reveals technology’s limits.

image: Danimal1802/Flickr

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