In this chapter, we explain what a campaign strategy is. We give examples of different types of campaign strategies that activists use. And we provide templates and workshops to develop your own strategy.
Chapter quality: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (4/5)
This is a series of guides for groups and organisations that want to know how to act more strategically and make more impact. After reading these guides, you will understand better what exactly the change is that you want to achieve, and what steps you need to take to get there:
🐘 Strategy levels: campaigns, organisations & revolution
Before you can start to define your strategy, you need to get a group of likeminded people together and organise yourselves. After you have defined your strategy, we recommend you to browse through our list of tactics to get inspiration for actions to organise.
What is a campaign strategy?
A campaign strategy is a plan or roadmap that helps you achieve your goal. It helps you take smart actions to make more impact.
Strategies can be used for anything. In the commercial sector, business strategies are used to make more profit. Activists use campaign strategies to bring about positive social change.
A campaign strategy is made up out of these basic elements:
1. Vision 💡
Your vision is your analysis of the root problem and your big ideas on how to make the world a better place.
Example: You might argue that the climate crisis is caused by a political system that gives more power to people with lots of money. However, you still believe there is the possibility of changing this unfair system, by getting together enough people. You want to build a new political system that gives a voice to everyone, especially those impacted most by the climate crisis.
2. Stakeholders 🌐
Stakeholders are all the individuals, groups of people and organisations that are relevant to your movement.
Example: You might want to analyse who are the stakeholders for your climate justice campaign. First of all, there are the people who are impacted by the climate crisis. Secondly, you have a list of allies, such as other environmental organisations. Thirdly, you have opponents because they profit from the current system, such as fossil fuel companies and politicians that get funded by them. Finally, you have targets, such as political parties that usually get a lot of votes from people who care about the climate.
3. Goals 🎯
Your goals are the concrete things that you want to achieve with your movement. Your goals define the scope of what your movement focuses on, within your broader vision.
Example: Your movement has the goal of letting people decide about the future of our planet, instead of the lobbyists of fossil fuel companies. You want to do so by demanding from your politicians to organise a citizens assembly that has the power to implement new environmental policies.
4. Objectives ✅
The best way of understanding objectives without confusing them with goals is to identify them as specific tasks that explain exactly how the goals are achieved. Objectives are the most specific elements of strategies and are mostly used to decide on action plans. Ideally, they are SMART:
Specific and Strategic
Example: You want your national parliament to organise a citizens assembly about the climate crisis. As a first step, you set the following objective: you want all major news media to write about your idea of a citizens assembly in the coming month because you think this will help create public support.
5. Tactics 📢
Tactics are something we have an entire chapter about. They are, in a nutshell, concrete series of actions that we plan and execute in order to meet our strategic objectives and goals. Depending on your strategies some tactics might be more relevant than others.
Different tactics attract people with different values and have varying degrees of success. Make sure not to confuse tactics and values. Solidarity or youth participation are not tactics, those are values that tactics such as cooperatives or student parliaments might help strengthen.
Example: You want all major news media to write about your idea of a citizens assembly. To achieve that, you want to use the tactic of putting up posters. Your plan is to distribute 5.000 large posters throughout the country with a controversial statement on it, in the hope of getting lots of media attention.
6. Evaluation 📊
The evaluation is important to reflect on what you are doing and determine whether it is effective. We want to have reliable ways of evaluating our own success and that can help us see our weak spots so we can improve them. Metrics play a very important role in this type of measurement.
Example: Putting up posters was only your first step in getting closer to a citizens assembly. You want to know if using posters as a means to get media attention worked: How many news media wrote about your action? Do you now have enough public support so you can move on to the next phase in your campaign strategy, or do you still have some work to do there first?
Developing a campaign strategy from zero can be a bit overwhelming. So we identified some key principles based on campaigns organised by experienced change-makers. Build your campaign strategy upon these foundations:
Conflict is good
Many people do not like standing out, going against the current. They like being 'in the middle' or 'neutral'. If you want to become effective as a change-maker, you need to learn swimming against the current. Being an activist is like being a hero: you do things that many other people do not dare to. Activists do things others think are impossible. Be brave.
Activism is about making trouble. You are unhappy about the way things are, so you say and do things to bring about change. There will always be people that benefit from the status quo (how things are right now). They will not like you trying to change things, so they will try to stop you. These are usually people with lots of power and money. They will try to convince other people that they should also be angry at you, even if the change you want is actually in their interest (for example, by publishing negative news about you in the outlets they own).
Being 'neutral' is like saying: I am ok with the way things are, I will not disrupt. Activism is the opposite. Impactful campaign strategies make use of disruption: you make noise, stand in the way or build alternatives that make the status quo irrelevant. Effective campaign strategies also take into account backlash.
Those in power do not listen to reason, information or moral arguments when it comes to things that are against their interests. They listen to material disruption of their interests. For example, most employers will only give their employees higher wages and fair working conditions if they go on strike. Democracy, women's voting rights, the end of segregation: all the result of people deciding to disrupt until they got what they demanded.
The degree to which you make trouble can vary: from changing the system 'from the inside' (for example, by going into politics), to blowing up pipelines. But there will always be a certain level of conflict. If there is no conflict, the change you are bringing about is too small for anyone to care about. Learn more about neutrality, disruption and social change in the book written by Bernie Mayer, Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán.
Build people power
People power, or collective citizen action, can drive social and political change through voting, protests, strikes, and other forms of direct action. Impactful campaign strategies make use of people power to bring about social change.
History shows its power to challenge authority, fight for equality, and spark significant societal shifts. It also empowers communities to shape their future by acting together, bypassing reliance on external factors. It works in two ways:
Make decisions together
Engage your community in productive dialogue and shared decision-making. This strengthens internal democracy and challenges the need for external authority figures. This is how to incorporate people power through collective decision-making into your campaign strategy:
Gather diverse perspectives: Involve marginalized groups directly in shaping the campaign goals, strategies, and messaging. Organize workshops, surveys, and discussions to ensure all voices are heard.
Facilitate inclusive decision-making processes: Use tools like consensus-building or ranked-choice voting to reach decisions that represent the collective will, not just the loudest voices.
Empower community ownership: Train and equip individuals within the movement to take on leadership roles and responsibilities.
Directly challenge existing power structures
Create effective plans to transform individuals into a powerful collective that demands attention. Develop clear goals and define the best courses of action to achieve them. Design a campaign strategy that leverages group strength:
Organize direct actions: Utilise protests, strikes, boycotts, or civil disobedience to draw attention to your cause and disrupt the status quo.
Build alternatives: Strengthen your community by building alternatives to a state-provided social safety net. Decrease dependance on commercial and government solutions, and challenge their existence by making them irrelevant.
Make it scalable
A good change-maker is never satisfied. No matter the positive impact you are making, there is always more to be done. The most impactful campaign strategies are scalable. That means that the strategy is designed in such a way that there is no limit to the growth of your movement or campaign.
Grassroots movements do this by turning their strategy into a template that anyone can reuse and adapt (see for example Extinction Rebellion: anyone can start a new local group just by reading their online guides). More institutionalised organisations do this by making use of a form of organising called 'big organising'.
An important factor in the scalability of your strategy is the way you make use of your resources (for example: money, paid staff, buildings). For example:
If every group of 10 volunteers needs one paid staffer for support, you need to hire a new employee for every 10 new volunteers. That is not scalable.
If you make use of publicly available buildings to meet up, such as libraries, you can have people meet up anywhere without worrying about the costs of renting locations. That is scalable.
Dare to take risks
Nobody ever changed society by doing things the way they have always been done. Big wins are only possible by taking big risks. Obviously, you do not want to take risks where it is not absolutely necessary. But as an example of a case where taking risk is a no-brainer: if we do not radically transform our society right now, we will face definite climate collapse, with disastrous impacts for people around the globe.
We need lots of people trying out lots of things. Most strategies will fail to bring about any significant change, but we only need one successful campaign to win.
Taking risks does not mean doing anything, including stupid things. We still need to be smart and strategic. Actions of one group can negatively impact a social movement as a whole. But they can also be beneficial for each other in unexpected ways. For example, some research has shown that actions of the radical flanks of social movements can actually increase support for more the moderate flanks, even if the radical groups themselves were unpopular.
Take time to reflect
Many activist movements struggle to make enough time to reflect. People are always so busy taking action, they have little time to think about whether their actions are actually creating the desired effect. Activist like to act, and that is a good thing: that is much better than politicians only talking, never actually doing anything. However, it is important to find the right balance. Acting without thinking does not make much sense either.
Do not complain about being too busy. Having time for things is a matter of priorities. Reflecting is vital, so just make time for it. That means frequently deciding not to do other things. Also remember: urgency is not the same as importance.
Strategies come in different sizes: there are small plans to bring about small change, and big plans to bring about big change.
Some activists like to make small plans, because they feel that they have more control over things that are close to them. Other activists like to think about big plans, because they want to see big change. As an effective change-maker, you need to learn to do both, and balance them:
Develop small, actionable, plans: While dreaming about big plans to create a better world is valuable, it can also be a bit too theoretical. Small strategies enable you to determine what you are going to do today, tomorrow, and the few next months.
Understand how small actions fit within bigger stories: While taking action is good, it can be a bit demotivating to compare the small footprint of your actions with the scale of the fucked-up-ness of the world. For your mental health, it is essential to understand your role within the bigger picture. Dare to dream big, because you are not alone, and together big change is possible.
The smaller the plan, the more concrete things become for you as an individual player within that strategy. The bigger the plan, the better you understand the way the world works.
Campaigns, movements & revolutions
To make our guides a bit more concrete, instead of talking about 'small' and 'big' strategies, Activist Handbook discusses the following three levels of strategies:
Campaign strategy: a plan for a few months that helps you achieve relatively small but meaningful change. You cannot change the world with a single campaign, but many campaigns can. Your campaign can be the tipping point.
Movement strategy: a bigger story that keeps people involved with your organisation over the span of multiple campaigns. The more persistent your activism, the bigger issues you can address. Movements stay around much longer than campaigns and can thus bring about more fundamental change, but they also come with their own unique challenges.
Revolution strategy: a story that tells how power is redistributed on a societal level, as the result of the collective effort of many activist groups and organisations. It is not possible for an individual to develop a strategy for a revolution, but it is possible to understand their workings and redefine their workings by introducing new perspectives. The most visible part of a revolution (the short moment big change suddenly happens) is not the most interesting thing from the perspective of strategies (all the things that happen before and after are).
Balancing urgency and strategy
Activists are often driven by deep passion and urgency about their cause. This sense of urgency can sometimes lead to hastily planned strategies that may not be as effective in the long run.
Conflict within the group
Differences in opinion on campaign strategies can lead to internal conflicts within the activist group. This can result in time and energy spent on dealing with internal issues rather than focusing on the campaign itself.
Defining clear, achievable goals can be difficult, especially in movements that aim for significant systemic change. Without clear goals, it can be hard to maintain motivation or measure progress.
Strategy is not everything
Organising a successful campaign is about more than just having a good strategy. We recommend you to read our guide on how to organise a campaign to learn about all other aspects, such as communicating your message, taking care of the wellbeing of your volunteers, your legal rights, and much more.
Now you know what basic elements make up a campaign strategy. Make sure to dive into our in-depth guides that we have linked above, so you can learn how to put your theoretical knowledge into practice.
Other strategy guides
The local context across countries can impact activists trying to develop their strategy in various ways. For example, the political system, the legal framework, the media landscape, the cultural norms, and the public opinion can all affect the opportunities and challenges that activists face. Depending on the context, activists may need to adapt their goals, tactics, messages, allies, and risks. Some general examples are:
In a democratic country with a strong civil society and a free press, activists may have more space to voice their demands and mobilize support through peaceful protests, petitions, campaigns, and lobbying.
In an authoritarian country with a repressive regime and a controlled media, activists may have less space to express their dissent and may face more threats and violence. They may need to use more covert and creative ways to communicate and organize, such as encryption, art, humor, or symbolism.
In a country with a diverse and divided society, activists may have to deal with different and sometimes conflicting interests and identities among their potential supporters and opponents. They may need to build bridges and coalitions across different groups and sectors, and avoid alienating or polarizing others.
In a country with a dominant and oppressive culture, activists may have to challenge deeply ingrained norms and values that justify or normalize injustice and discrimination. They may need to raise awareness and educate people about the issues they are fighting for, and use cultural expressions and narratives that resonate with their audience.
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This section still needs to be written! What strategies have groups used, or are groups currently using? What has worked? How is success defined? What specific campaigns are worthy of study, for their success or ‘failure’ or ‘nearly-success’?
Improve this chapter
You can make this chapter about campaign strategies better!
Some potential new sub-pages/sections:
Interventions: things your movement can change about society/in a community (see more in ‘types of strategies’)
Dealing with backlash
What to expect
- Add link to ‘power mapping’ guide on ‘stakeholders’ page
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political party strategy
*According to Semrush
Creative Commons resources
Campaign Strategy: Start Here by Commons Library
Collection: Developing a Strategic Plan by Community Tool Box
Developing Strategic and Action Plans by Community Tool Box
Collection: Assessing Community Needs and Resources by Community Tool Box
Collection: Analyzing Community Problems and Solutions by Community Tool Box
Collection: Deciding Where to Start by Community Tool Box
Collection: Choosing and Adapting Community Interventions by Community Tool Box
Strategy by The Change Agency
Systems Thinking and Campaigning by Nicky Ison
Starting an initiative by the Citizen's Handbook
Campaign strategy by 10 Tactics
Book: The Politics of Nonviolent Action [Book] by Gene Sharp
How to Move from Vision to Action by Mary Joyce
Choose Your Own Activism Strategy Adventure by Mary Joyce
Developing Strategic Campaigns: An ITF Manual for Trade Union Activists, Educators and Organisers by International Transport Workers' Union
The People Power Manual by The Change Agency
Campaign strategy and planning by Change My Community
PDF: Research, Strategy and Targeting from Campaign Skills Handbook by National Democratic Institute
PDF: Building a campaign strategy from CMC Campaign Toolkit by Cluster Munition Coalition
Effective Political Campaign Strategies by Brendan Finucane (2023)
Political Campaign Strategies to Win an Election by Chunav Parchar (2023)
Organizing: People, Power, Change by Leading Change Network, Marshall Ganz, New Organizing Institute, Peter Gibbs, Shea Sinnott
Building a campaign strategy by Stop Cluster Munitions [PDF]
Campaign strategies by 10 Tactics
Election Campaign Strategies by Ecanvasser
Campaigning for Social Change: Beyond Just Protesting For It by Daniel Hunter
The Building Power Guide by Original Power
Research for your strategy by Citizen's Handbook
Planning a Grassroot's Action by Citizen's Handbook
The following sources were reused:
- Elements of Campaign Strategy by James Whelan