Introduction: Why Read the Effective Activist Guide?

Why do we engage in activism? For most of us, something that we love has been stolen.


Climate change is ravaging the natural world and our communities.[1] Jails are filled with Black and Brown men[2] whose only crime was being born of a different skin color. Our environment is filled with harmful chemicals that poison all living beings, with 95% of humans living in areas with unhealthy air.[3] One in five women have been the victim of attempted or completed rape,[4] and over 80% have been sexually harassed.[5]  Billions of animals endure a torturous existence in factory farms every year.[6] Immigrant communities are torn apart by detentions and deportations.[7] Schools in low-income neighborhoods are funneling children of color into the criminal justice system for minor offenses.[8] The richest 1% of the world’s population owns almost half of the wealth.[9]


We feel unsafe when we go outside. We are worried for the well-being of our families and our neighbors. We miss being able to see the stars at night, to take a deep breath of fresh air, to sip clean water from our local stream. We watch the news in fear, anxiously awaiting the day another decision will be made that will further strip us of our rights.


Today, 150 species of plants and animals will go extinct.[10] Today, 2,000 people will commit suicide.[11] Today, in the world’s poorest countries, 15,000 children under the age of five will die from a preventable illness.[12] Today, 2,000 of those children will die from diarrhea, lacking access to the simple and enormously cheap treatment of water mixed with salt and sugar.[13]


And today, the five highest earning CEOs will each earn almost $200,000[14]—more in one day than 99.9% of the world earns in one year.[15] Today, the 200,000 richest individuals in the world will spend $100 million just on jewelry, watches, sunglasses, and handbags[16]—an amount that could save tens of thousands of lives if it was donated to charity instead.[17]


We engage in activism because we are tired of this. We engage in activism because we want to live in a better world, because we want to restore our planet, our neighborhoods, our connection with nature, and our lives. We engage in activism because we want the world to be governed by community and care, not by wealth and violence.


This guide will tell you how to reclaim what you love.


Hundreds of scientific studies have explored which progressive activist strategies are the most effective in creating lasting social change. For many causes, scientists have established proven strategies for building a better world. Unfortunately, progressive movements are not using these effective methods because most activists have never heard of these studies.


Why is this the case? Because scientists are experts in their fields, studies on activism and social change are often highly technical and narrowly focused. This is great for ensuring scientific rigor, but it has prevented everyday activists from accessing, understanding, and implementing the most important findings on progressive activism. This is unfortunate because scientific research is an incredibly useful tool for activists to utilize. Using strategies that have been studied and proven to be effective allows activists to conserve their energy. Instead of wasting time guessing at what will work, we can follow the recommendations of scientists and researchers and select tactics that we know will produce results. Leveraging this knowledge has the potential to make our activism far more efficient and impactful.


In order to help activists harness scientific findings to create lasting progressive change, we created the Effective Activist guide. The guide condenses hundreds of articles and books on activism, social justice, social movements, revolutions, and politics in order to explain how to be a more impactful and effective activist, step-by-step.


Which forms of activism have the most impact? Where should you focus your energies to create a better world? Based on the research, the most impactful change-makers take action in at least one of the following effective activist areas:


  • Conduct activist campaigns in the service of social change
  • Build strong and resilient progressive movements
  • Integrate activism into your everyday life


The Effective Activist guide is organized around these three effective activist components.


Part 1 will teach you how to effectively employ activist campaign tactics, including crafting messaging strategies, hosting educational programs, conducting protests, targeting companies and institutions, targeting individuals to make behavioral changes, lobbying and influencing elected officials, and mobilizing voters. This section is most relevant for individuals currently planning or conducting campaigns, or for anyone who is interested in organizing in their community for change.


Part 2 will teach you how to build strong and resilient social movements that can encourage progressive action and create social change for decades to come. This section includes proven best practices for recruiting activists to your cause, preventing burnout, and challenging oppression and promoting social justice in organizations. This section is most useful for individuals currently working in progressive nonprofits or organizing in a group; individuals seeking to promote diversity and reduce violence in their schools, workplaces, cooperatives, or nonprofits; and anyone who is interested in support work for building up the progressive base.


Part 3 will teach you how to integrate activism into your everyday life to transform your routine activities into powerful acts of social change, including by choosing an impactful career, giving what you can to effective charities and progressive organizations, setting off ripple effects in your community, , leveraging your power and influence, voting and contacting your elected officials, challenging oppression and promoting social justice, and communicating about progressive issues effectively. This section is applicable to anyone who wants to boost their impact as an individual.


Working on at least one of these effective activist areas will dramatically increase your ability to create change. For each area, the guide summarizes all of the relevant research to help you understand the most effective tactics and strategies for building a better world.


Throughout the guide, we ask you to realistically evaluate where you’re at in order to understand how you can best create progressive change. If you have very little activism or political experience, you probably won’t be very effective at single-handedly creating a new progressive organization or movement from scratch. On the other end of the spectrum, if you have years of organizing, advocacy, or professional skills, attending a protest a couple times a year while working an entry-level non-profit job is probably not leveraging your full potential.


It’s up to you to determine which actions suit your current skills, experiences, and goals the best. We will provide you with the research on which actions are the most effective at creating change, and we’ll help you plan how to implement the ones that best suit where you’re at, but ultimately you will pick your path forward.


It’s easy to become overwhelmed by too much information, and with summaries of hundreds of articles covering individual actions, building strong organizations, and planning activist campaigns, this Effective Activist guide is certainly an undertaking. We’ve tried to summarize and condense the findings as much as possible, and we’ve explicitly mentioned the most helpful links and recommended readings so that interested activists can take a deeper dive into certain actions and tactics without needing to sift through hundreds of references.


To help you apply this wealth of knowledge, the Effective Activist guide includes many worksheets and activities that will support your move from information to action. At the end of the guide, you will create your own effective activist plan to create real, impactful, lasting progressive change in the world. Please take the time to write down your answers and think the guide through—it does make a difference in your ability to internalize the information.


Why You Engage in Activism

Being an effective activist will look different for every person. Think about YOU—who you are and what you care about—as you answer the questions below.


What issues do you care most about? As an activist, who or what are you fighting for?


Have you taken any action to help address these issues? If so, what action have you taken?


What are other people doing to address these issues? Do these approaches seem to be working?


What are the obstacles that have gotten in the way of you taking action to address the issues you care most about?


If you could wave a magic wand and solve all of these issues, what would your ideal world look like?




Ready to learn how to become an effective activist? Let’s get started.


NEXT SECTION: An Effective Approach to Activism


[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2018

[2] U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics 2018

[3] Health Effects Institute 2018

[4] Smith, Chen, Basile, Gilbert, Merrick, Patel, Walling, and Jain 2017

[5] Kearl 2018

[6] Center for a Livable Future 2013

[7] Society for Community Research and Action 2018

[8] Education Law Center 2011

[9] Credit Suisse 2018

[10] Djoghlaf 2007

[11] World Health Organization 2018b

[12] World Health Organization 2018a

[13] Liu, Johnson, Cousens, Perin, Scott, Lawn, Rudan, Campbell, Cibulskis, Li, Mathers, and Black 2012

[14] The New York Times 2018

[15] Calculated using Giving What We Can’s “How Rich Am I?” calculator, available at:

[16] Coldwell Banker Global Luxury 2017

[17] Sachs 2016


Need to dig more into the literature? Visit our full references page to search for the article you’re interested in.