Effective Activist Planning
Organizing without a strategy is like watching pee-wee soccer, where you throw a ball out and a bunch of little four-year-olds come. They kick the ball, they put everything into it…and occasionally somebody gets the goal, but you can’t figure out how it happened and you can’t replicate it and you can’t do it better in a more efficient manner.
-Chris Dixon, quoting a friend, in his 2014 book, Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements (p. 110).
While reactionary activism in the face of a crisis can sometimes get things done, activists need strategic plans in order to consistently achieve lasting and widespread change. Activists must know how far they’ve come and what work they still need to accomplish in order to keep moving forward. Effective activist strategies also can help you leverage your power efficiently to create more impact. Indeed, some movements have even been able to win large successes despite a severe lack of resources by developing an effective and creative strategy.
How do you develop a good strategy? We will give you an overview of the main components of a strategic plan, help you avoid some common activist planning mistakes, and detail an example of an effective strategy that led to real-world changes. At the end of this section, we will help you create your own plan to move you forward in your efforts to change the world.
Effective activist strategic plans include six primary components:
- Measures of success
Your vision is your ideal future, the better tomorrow that you work towards every time you engage in activism. Our visions are often grand—a world without oppression, an equitable and sustainable economy, the end of climate change. Understanding your vision can help you maintain motivation and connect with other change-makers.
It’s important to distinguish our activist vision from our goals. Our goals are the checkpoints along the way toward our vision, getting us closer and closer to the world we want to live in.
The most successful activist campaigns take time to plan and set a variety of goals that will all gradually help them work towards their vision. Successful campaigns do not necessarily accomplish all of their original goals, but they are able to adapt in the face of changing contexts and continue moving forward toward their vision. Setting a number of goals and being flexible and resilient can help you stay on course and allow you to celebrate your successes along the way.
Aim to develop goals that are specific, achievable, and realistic, and avoid amorphous or poorly defined goals. Your goals could include reducing bullying by a certain percentage at your school by the end of the year, or passing a progressive ballot proposition in the next election.
What is achievable and realistic differs based on an individual’s or a group’s experience and skills. If you are brand new to activism, goals to change national-level politics or target multinational corporations may not be realistic; choosing smaller, local goals may be smarter. Additionally, some activist goals have been incredibly difficult to achieve. Activist campaigns attempting to target policies closely tied to the national structure and with high levels of political or material resources at stake, such as trying to reduce military spending or stop wars, have largely been unsuccessful. Campaigns trying to expel a specific person in power have also usually fallen flat. Reading about social movement success in the next section will help you evaluate how realistic it is for you to tackle larger issues.
Objectives are the even smaller building blocks that help you reach your goals. These are small steps that help you direct your action. If your vision is a world where the rights of all peoples are protected, and one of your goals is to make your city a sanctuary city for immigrants, your objectives may be to draft an ordinance, gain popular support for the change, and convince your city council to pass the ordinance. Objectives are also important because they help you keep track of your progress. If you only have a goal with no objectives, you could work for years without understanding how far you’ve come and where you need to go next. If you can see that you’ve accomplished many of your objectives, but still have a few to go, you can better plan future actions.
Targets are the people or institutions who you seek to influence. Our goals and objectives often rely on targets implementing some sort of change, such as a lawmaker passing a bill, a company changing a harmful practice, or a community adopting healthier behaviors.
There are two types of targets: primary targets and secondary, or “proxy,” targets. Primary targets have the most direct influence on our issue, and are often the most visible or obvious target for our work. Secondary targets are individuals or institutions that are related to your issue area—they may not be the most direct cause of an issue, but they still have influence over it.
Many activists throughout the years have found that they’ve had little influence or leverage when their primary target was the government or state. If you’re a member of a marginalized group or if your government is inaccessible, or even hostile to you, know that activists have been successful at working with secondary targets when they don’t have access to the government or the state. One of the most famous examples of this is Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers movement, which lacked access to the state to implement labor laws but was able to successfully coordinate a grape boycott to improve conditions and wages for farmworkers.
Always consider both your primary targets and secondary targets when planning action, and choose the targets that utilize your leverage and power the best.
Tactics are the specific actions we take in order to influence our targets so that we can meet our objectives, which will bring us closer to reaching our goals, which will help us in our journey towards achieving our vision. Tactics include protesting, boycotting, lobbying, media campaigns, and more. We’ve dedicated a whole section of the guide to reviewing what makes certain tactics more (or less) effective, so be sure to read up on scientifically-proven best practices for each tactic before you employ it.
Measures of success
It’s important to measure your success in achieving your objectives and goals in order to know whether you’re making an impact. If your tactics are not bringing about change, you’ll need to switch them up. If your tactics are helping you achieve your objectives, but meeting your objectives is not helping you accomplish your goals, you’ll need to define new objectives. If you don’t know what’s working and what isn’t working, you will be fumbling in the dark with your activism.
Activists sometimes mistake frenzy, exhaustion, public opposition, imprisonment, and state repression for success. While these measures are easy to see, and some radical communities have built a warped sense of pride and reputation around them, these measures actually hurt movements and make activists less likely to meet their goals.
It’s also essential to collect accurate data. Self-reported data is a common metric, but studies have found that self-reports may not line up with actual behavior change. For example, people may say that they feel more informed or that they’re making a change when they’re actually no more knowledgeable than before or haven’t really adjusted their behavior. One study found that when researchers asked people which materials most influenced their decision-making, the materials that people consciously rated the least influential (materials containing information on social norms) actually changed their behavior the most.
Be sure to pick measures of success that represent concrete, positive changes in the world, such as lower incidences of violence, larger progressive voter turnout, or the implementation of progressive policies, just to give a few examples. You can rely on outside sources of information—such as government reports or scholarly literature—or conduct your own small studies to acquire information—such as measuring changes in individuals’ behaviors. Be sure to take a baseline reading or collect statistics on the current state of the problem before you start acting so you can see how much your efforts have an impact.
Common planning mistakes
There are a few common mistakes activists make when planning their strategy. It is okay if you find yourself relating to some of these mistakes—if you already knew how to be a perfect activist, you wouldn’t need to be reading this guide! Take these mistakes as a way to learn and grow, not as a condemnation of yourself or your abilities as an activist.
The first planning mistake is having no plan at all. Reacting swiftly to crises is sometimes necessary, but when all of your activism is frantic and rushed, we can quickly devolve into exhaustion and burnout. It’s important to investigate what causes the crises that you react to so you can engage in preventative activism that moves you closer to your goals and vision. For example, if you find yourself repeatedly organizing last-minute protests after harmful laws are passed, you may do better to lobby your elected officials or mobilize progressive voters so that harmful laws are never passed in the first place. If you’re spending a lot of energy calling out oppressive speech in your community, you may see more widespread impact by hosting educational events or enacting organizational practices that can reduce prejudice levels before they manifest into hateful speech.
The second planning mistake is rushing into a plan. We sometimes think of goals and objectives that could help us work toward our vision, and then hurry off to accomplish them without seriously considering other options. Years later, we may be still be fighting a battle that we only seriously considered for one afternoon! It can be helpful to set aside time to brainstorm all of the potential goals that could benefit your cause, and then choose the ones that seem the most realistic or that will put you in the best position to fight for your vision later on.
The third planning mistake is confusing your vision for your goals and objectives. This usually takes the form of only being able to articulate one very difficult mission—end capitalism, smash patriarchy, halt climate change—with no realistic goals or objectives as stepping stones along the way. Activists stuck in this mindset often employ tactics at random, hoping that they can do something, anything, to bring about their vision. Unfortunately, this approach often leads to exhaustion and burnout. When your only goal is saving the whole world, you will always feel like a failure. It’s also not very effective, as clear goals help us stay on track and increase our chances of creating change.
The fourth planning mistake is confusing your goals and objectives for your vision—being unable to see the forest for the trees. This usually takes the form of becoming hell-bent on accomplishing a specific goal or objective, even when it is unrealistic or hurting your ability to create change. We often fall into this rigid mindset when we do not want to compromise our values—we may be unwilling to give up on one of our goals or objectives because we think it means we will be sacrificing who we are or what we stand for. Although it is difficult, it’s important to evaluate when you’re so focused on winning the battle that you may lose the war. Giving up your long-term vision for the sake of one short-term goal or objective is often not worth it. These conversations are always difficult and highly contested, but they are worth having.
You can avoid these common activist mistakes by taking the time to thoroughly plan your strategy.
Tying it all together
Throughout the guide, we’ve provided many real-life examples of activist successes. Let’s look at another campaign in detail to see how activists used a creative strategy to leverage their power and boost their impact. O’Rourke’s 2005 article on the campaign to reduce old-growth forest logging provides an excellent case study for effective activist planning.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, environmental activists successfully reduced old-growth forest logging in the U.S. Their vision was a world with protected old-growth forests that could maintain biodiversity for decades to come. Their goal was to reduce old-growth logging over the course of several years. Their goal had a creative twist—reducing the demand for paper made from old-growth trees—because they felt that focusing on the logging itself would be ineffective.
Activists did not target the logging companies themselves, but instead targeted a secondary institution—the U.S.’s largest paper supplier, Staples. They understood that if they could get the largest U.S. paper supplier to stop supplying old-growth paper, logging companies would see a dramatic reduction in demand for old-growth trees and consumers would become accustomed to more sustainable paper, helping shift norms in a more environmentally-friendly direction.
Before they began taking action, a coalition of organizations teamed up and spent one year planning and conducting research in order to ensure their campaign would be successful. Then, they deployed a wide variety of tactics. Activists hosted more than 600 protests around the U.S. over a two-year period. They wrote letters, sent emails, and made phone calls to Staples executives highlighting the research they had done showing that a majority of U.S. consumers opposed logging old-growth forests would be less likely to buy from a company that sells old-growth products. They secured celebrity endorsements and coordinated celebrity public service announcements.
Activists took the campaign to the next level by reaching out to the secondary institutions of their original secondary institution: they secured agreements to avoid old-growth paper from Staples’ buyers and suppliers, including IBM, Dell, Kinko’s, Nike, Levi’s, Microsoft, Intel, and AT&T. They also formed alliances with alternative paper supplier companies and solutions groups in order to advance recycled and alternative papers to replace the old-growth paper stock. These turned out to be incredibly creative and effective strategies for their campaign.
Staples eventually agreed to phase out old-growth paper products and increase recycled paper, a win for activists. Activists rewarded them with public celebrations, celebrity endorsers in tow, and then promptly put ads in major newspapers commending Staples—and asking OfficeMax and Office Depot to meet or beat Staple’s new policy. This sparked a competitive spirit among corporations to be the most environmentally friendly as a way to boost business and PR.
These activists utilized many of the most effective strategies we’ve mentioned previously in the guide. They formed a coalition to boost their power and reach. They spent a significant amount of time planning their campaign in advance. They had clear objectives that helped them reach their goals, which were in service of their larger vision. They chose their targets carefully to leverage their power and have more of an impact. They utilized a wide variety of tactics, including frequent protests and direct communication with key decisionmakers. They had strong messaging that was tailored to their audience and that utilized influential celebrities. Their campaign did take a year to plan and a few years to implement, but they were eventually successful in reaching their goal.
This is just one example of activists being creative and strategic to create progressive change. Are you ready to create your own plan to change the world?
 Ganz 2000; Zuo and Benford 1995
 Adapted with permission from Alex Green’s advocacy strategies framework, presented at NASCO Institute 2018
 Amenta, Caren, Chiarello, and Su 2010
 Gamson 1990
 Walker, Martin, and McCarthy 2008
 King and Pearce 2010; Walker, Martin, and McCarthy 2008; Weber, Rao, and Thomas 2008
 Ganz 2000
 Dixon 2014
 Kantola, Syme, and Campbell 1984
 Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein, and Griskevicius 2008
Need to dig more into the literature? Visit our full references page to search for the article you’re interested in.