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Develop your activist strategy

Writing a strategy for your movement
19 min read
Last update: Feb 15, 2024
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In this guide, we explain how to write a strategy plan for your campaign or organisation. First, we list various situations that might be similar to the one you are in. Secondly, we provide a few workshop guides that you can use as a template for your strategy brainstorm.

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Introduction

A campaign strategy is a plan for how you will give yourselves the best chance of success.

This guide aims to support groups to go through the process of planning your campaign together. We help you to do it in a way that works for as many people as possible and results in solid decisions you can all put your weight behind.

Working together on important decisions helps your group put into practice values like equality and co-operation. Collective decision making also increases the chances people feel involved and follow through on decisions you’ve made. This is vital in a voluntary group, where people are likely to vote with their feet and leave if they feel frustrated.

However, we aren’t brought up with the skills to make complex and important decisions in groups. Simply trying to do it is no guarantee that the experience will be empowering and effective!

The guide may be particularly useful to people who plan to facilitate the meetings. However, the more people in the group engage in thinking about how to make the planning process work, the more effective it is likely to be.

Creating a plan involves... analysing your situation, deciding on clear goals, working out which players to target, how you can best put pressure on them and what kinds of tactics will be effective. An effective strategy also includes a plan for building up the capacity of your group and campaign, so you can increase momentum and enable enough people to be actively involved for the long haul. See our guide Campaign Strategy for more

Summary

What is your situation?

There are different circumstances in which you might want to develop a strategy.

  • You might be alone, unsure how to bring about change: Find other people to work together with.

  • You might be in a new group without a strategy: Use your momentum to get people together and develop a strategy, to avoid your group falling apart quickly.

  • You might have an ineffective strategy: Take time to evaluate why your strategy is not working.

  • People disagree about the strategy: Find consensus on the broad lines, or split up.

Steps to develop strategy

This process tries to bring in different ways of thinking about strategy, so as to come up with a plan that is based on a strong analysis of the situation, and uses creative ideas to find the most effective way forward.

1. Prepare

Work out who needs to be involved and appoint facilitators.

2. Agree your aims

What are you trying to achieve as a campaign? Everyone will have different priorities and motivations – work out what you have in common and what you can commit to working on together.

3. Gather info and analyse context

Get a shared understanding of your situation, to help you work out how to have an influence.

4. Think creatively about ways forward

Open up space to come up with lots of possibilities for ways that you can build your campaign and have an impact on your goals.

5. Make a plan

Make a plan that will help you achieve your agreed goals. This means choosing between your creative ideas based on your analysis of the situation. Decide what organisations you will target, how you will put pressure on them, and create a timeline of potential tactics. The plan should also include how you will build up your own side.

6. Put plan into practice

See how your plan works out in practice.

7. Review and adjust plan

What is the impact of what you are doing? How could you have more impact? How well is the campaign working for the group and the individuals within it? Make any changes you need in order to put the campaign in a stronger position.

What is your situation?

I am alone and want to bring about change

You want to change something, but you do not know exactly where to get started. You might feel discouraged, because you feel alone in your fight.

👉 Our advice: Get together with a few other people first. While a strategy can help you understand what actions to take, a strategy is best developed together with others.

Our group is just starting out: no strategy

You have come together with a few others. You might just have started a new campaign or organisation, and you do not have any strategy yet. You have seen some injustice, and you want to do something about it. You might even have taken some action: for example, you may have started collecting signatures for a petition, organised a protest or created a social media account to 'spread awareness'. But you have not really thought about how your actions are going to help you achieve your goals.

👉 Our advice: You have momentum right now, make use of it quickly! Without a strategy, your actions are likely not going to help you achieve your goals. This will lead to disappointment, and people will leave. A strategy does not guarantee success, but it will turn any failures into a learning process:

  • Get together with everyone who wants to contribute and have a brainstorm to develop a strategy together. Make sure to split up into small groups (max 8 people) based on common interests.

  • You do not have to come to consensus as a whole group. You might find that one group wants to take a particular approach, and another has a different strategy in mind. That is fine! Think about how your different approaches can strengthen each other, and each try to make your own strategy work.

Our organisation has a strategy, but we are not making impact

Your organisation has matured. You might have written very extensive strategic plans. But if you look out there in the real world, you do not see any tangible change. You might feel like you are putting more effort into maintaining the organisation than into achieving the goals that the organisation exists for in the first place. You might be very successful in some terms: getting donors, having people signing petitions, etc. But these 'successes' do not seem to translate into a real-world difference.

👉 Our advice: Your reflection process is likely not working. Take a step back and reserve time to evaluate and strategise:

  • Determine what things help you get closer to your goals, and which things just help your organisation stay around. There is no point in maintaining an organisation that does not make impact.

  • While evaluating, you might find that you do not have the data to determine if you are making progress. In that case, determine what data you could start collecting.

  • You might find that you are not actually doing the things you wrote down in your strategic plans. In that case, try to make your strategy more concrete. What are your objectives and tactics? What items should you put on your to-do list? Give to-do's that directly contribute to achieving your objectives priority above anything else. Things that are urgent are not necessarily important.

Disagreement about strategy

You might have a strategy, but you or other people might not agree with it. You might not agree on goals or tactics to achieve those goals. People are getting frustrated, because disagreements make collaboration difficult.

👉 Our advice: If you want to be effective as an organisation, you need consensus on your strategy. In other words: everyone needs to agree on the broad lines why your organisation exists and what type of actions you organise to make impact.

  • As a first step, get everyone together to reflect on your strategy and take lots of time. You do not want to put time pressure on this! Good facilitation of the meeting is absolutely essential, otherwise you risk unproductive and harmful fights. Have a dialogue, not a discussion.

  • You might not get everyone on the same page. Ask yourselves: what is it that binds us together? Can we form different subgroups that each do their own thing, but strengthen each other as a whole? If there is not enough to bind you together as a single organisation, it might be better to split up. Do not let conflict be the reason for you to split up: good facilitation can address that. But it is completely fine to have fundamental disagreements on goals and tactics (in which case you should not be one organisation).

Prerequisites

Before you can start developing a campaign strategy you need:

  • People to work together with: You cannot develop a good campaign strategy alone. Check out our organising chapter for information on how to get together with other people.

  • Time: If you are in the heat of the moment, you are probably not writing campaign strategy plans. You need some time to analyse your context, reflect, and come up well-thought-out plans. That does not mean you should not write a strategy if you are busy! Activists are always busy. You need to make time, because doing activism without a strategy is useless.

Planning as a group

Before launching into planning your strategy, it helps to think through what you are trying to achieve by working together on the plan. Group decision-making brings up challenges, which can be easier to navigate if you’re clear why you’re trying to make the decision together. We’ve listed some common benefits and pitfalls of planning as a group:

Benefits of planning in a group Empowerment and commitment

Making important decisions together is important for people feeling fully involved and included in a campaign. It is also an essential skill to learn together if we want to build a society where people can have more power over all aspects of their lives. When everyone has been involved in shaping the plan, they are more likely to put it in practice.

Shared understanding

If everyone is clear about why you are taking a particular approach, your every day campaign meetings should go more smoothly. For example, if it is clear which suggested tactics fit your overall strategy and which don’t, it should be easy to choose between them.

More perspectives

Assuming you have enough in common to work together, then the more perspectives you can take into account at the strategy planning stage the better. Meetings may feel efficient when you reach agreement easily, but any differences that exist between the people in a meeting are likely to be shared by other people in the campaign. Bringing them into the open will help you find ways forward that strengthen the whole group.

More ways of thinking

Coming up with a good strategy involves systematic research, logical analysis, insight, creativity, lateral thinking and many more brain skills. It is rare that one person can do all of those things well. Bringing lots of people to the table means we can benefit from all these ways of thinking.

Common pitfalls

Barriers to participation

Coming up with an effective strategy involves ‘big picture’ thinking, and bearing lots of different factors in mind in order to make a decision. That can easily lead to the conversation being very abstract, or people feeling overwhelmed because they can’t hold the information in their heads.

In addition, groups can create extra barriers to participation by having a narrow idea of what they think strategy meetings should look like. For example, if we think strategising should be a purely logical process with no space for feelings or intuition, it will limit who can engage.

Make time for getting to grips with background information. Use simple visuals and summaries to help people remember. Vary your facilitation tools and methods to make space for more different ways of thinking.

Different ideas about how to go forward

Strategy meetings can bring out our different opinions and ethics about how to make change. Because a campaign plan is a big and important decision, we may find it harder to compromise than in a more routine meeting. Alternatively, you may find the conversation gets stuck because people are avoiding addressing their disagreements directly!

If you can, there are benefits to bringing the differences into the open and really exploring them. It gives you a much clearer picture of whether you can go on working together long term. Getting more shared understanding may help you come up with a plan you can all stick to.

Bringing in feelings

Not everyone finds it easy to talk about strong emotions, especially in the context of a campaign meeting! However, communication is harder when we don’t acknowledge feelings. For example, if someone feels hopeless about the success of the campaign, they might not voice it out loud so as not to bring everyone else down. But it can come out in other ways. For example shooting down all the ideas that people come up with.

Making space to acknowledge feelings may bring you closer as a group. It can also help you find ways of addressing underlying issues. Maybe if someone is feeling hopeless about success it is the moment to up your game and use more confrontational tactics. Or to set more realistic goals! Or simply to allow yourselves the chance to grieve and rage about the fact that you are up against more shit than you can change.

Energy and sustainability

Logically speaking, a strategic plan is based on the actual capacity you have. You may be able to increase that capacity by getting more people involved, but remember to take into account the time that that takes too!

In practice, voluntary groups very often over-commit! This can hugely limit your effectiveness, and cause bad feeling if work (and power) aren’t fairly shared out.

Not everyone finds it easy to even talk about how much capacity they have. People may feel shame about the limits to their time available. Or find it hard to accept that they don’t have enough energy even though the campaign is very important to them. Being new to campaigning can make it harder to accurately estimate how long things will take.

Try to make space for assessing your capacity whenever you make a plan. Give people enough time to think honestly and realistically about what they can commit to. And always look for ways for more people to take on responsible organising roles, so it doesn’t all fall on the same shoulders. Finally, be prepared to stop, re-prioritise and scale back if you need to.

Step-by-step strategy planning

1. Prepare

Work out who needs to be involved

Make sure you have the right people at the table. Often that will be the people who will put the campaign plan in practice. Sometimes there will be people who are affected by the issue who don’t have time for day-to-day campaigning. Consider reaching out to these people to join the strategy process if they want to, because these are the people who have most at stake!

Similarly, you might get in touch with other groups and work together on making a strategy. For example, if you have a local campaign against a coal mine, you might get together with other local groups to come up with a strategy for how to change national policy. In a situation like this, get a shared understanding of what decisions you are taking together, and what things will still be decided by local groups.

Appoint facilitators

These are people who guide the group through the decision making process. Facilitators don't have any extra power over what the decisions are - they are just there to enable everyone to be heard in a productive discussion. They could use the detailed description we have provided below to pick out appropriate questions and activities for the group.

It might take more than one meeting to decide on your strategy! You may swap round who is facilitating for different bits of the process. Whoever is doing it, it helps to think through where the group is at, and what is needed from the meeting before you start.

2. Agree your campaign aims

A shared campaign goal is the concrete thing that you are working together to achieve. For example, 'keep the domestic violence shelter open in our town'.

You may also be motivated by broader over-arching aims, vision and values (‘Smash the patriarchy’, ‘Equality and liberation’ etc.). It is good to discuss these broader motivations and understand where each other is coming from. It is likely to be easier to work together if your vision and values are similar.

The difference between these over-arching aims and your campaign goal, is that the goal needs to be concrete and achievable enough that you can make a plan for how to make it happen.

Key questions

It can help for each individual involved to spend a bit of time working out their own hopes and motivations before bringing everyone together.

  • Individuals: What do I want this campaign to achieve? Why am I motivated to take part? What longer term aims does it help me towards?

  • Collectively: What are the similarities and differences in a) our aims and b) our motivations? Do we have enough in common to work together? What do we think is realistic to achieve together? What are our collectively agreed campaign goals?

In a coalition, potential member groups could start by answering the 'individual' questions and then all the groups could come together for the ‘collective’ questions.

Notes on group dynamics

People often find it hard to separate their motivations and values from their immediate and achievable goals. Make space for people to get out all of the different reasons they want to be involved in the campaign. Acknowledge how important these are, as well as trying to identify the concrete goal you are making a plan for together. If everything you are coming up with seems too big to be achievable, try asking ‘What is one step that would put us in a stronger position?’ For example, if you want to transform the power dynamics of your workplace, a first step you could plan for might be getting a trade union recognised.

Also, look out for conflict coming up at this stage. If you have big differences, think carefully about whether you can set them aside to work for your immediate goals. There could also be benefits to splitting the group and forming two smaller ones that each have a different focus or ethos. Working with people who want similar things can release a lot of energy. On the other hand, a downside of splitting is that it may result in two groups that are too small to stick at a campaign for the long haul.

Alternatively, if you reach agreement on your goals easily this could be a sign you have a lot in common – or that you haven’t had a full enough discussion! Look out later for signs later on that people are running on different assumptions about what the goals are – and be prepared to revisit this conversation if necessary.

3. Gather information and analyse the context

A strategic plan is based on a strong, collective understanding of your situation. This includes understanding the strengths of your own group and looking for potential allies, as well as knowing about the organisations that are acting against you.

Research

Some or all of you will probably need to do some research in order to have enough information. Try getting together to pool the knowledge you already have, then sending people away with questions to answer ready to share at the following meeting. This is likely to be an ongoing process, as each new piece of information will throw up new questions. See page 18 below for more detail on the practicalities of doing research.

Analysis

The end-goal of your analysis is to work out what is the way forward which will enable you to have the best impact towards your campaign goals. To help you reach that point, try to come to a good understanding of where the power lies in your situation – both your potential power, and the powers you are up against.

Key questions

These questions should help you analyse the situation, in order to work out how to have the most influence. For example:

  • Outside your group: Who are the players that have a potential influence on your goals? What is their attitude to your goals, and why? How much (potential) influence do they have, and why?

  • Your own group: What are your strengths? What (potential) allies could help you? What capacity / resources do you have? How could you increase your capacity and resources?

  • The situation: What possible opportunities can you spot? What important challenges do you face?

Notes on group dynamics

Research requires time, patience and a good head for detail. Not everyone needs to be involved in finding stuff out, but think carefully about how to share the information to everyone can be involved in the analysis. Present the information in a variety of ways so that everyone else can really get their heads round it all. For example, visual headers on big paper, detailed lists of information people can refer to and lots of opportunities to talk and ask questions.

Similarly, none of the analysis questions have clear cut answers, and you will all have different interpretations of the information. This is another good reason to explore the information together, rather than simply handing over the analysis to the person who looked things up!

4. Think creatively about ways forward

In order to come up with a plan that really works, come up with a rich pool of ideas about possible ways to have an influence in your situation.

All thinking is creative - but it helps to protect a bit of space which is just dedicated to dreaming up new ideas. One benefit is this helps you get off the tramlines of ‘we always do what we’ve always done’! Once you have collected a good range of possible ways forward, you can think critically about which will help you achieve your goals.

Key questions

In order to support creativity, ask questions which have lots of potential answers. For example:

  • Are there players we could influence without too much effort?

  • What things could we do that build on our own strengths?

  • What are possible ways to respond to the challenges we face?

  • What things could we do to make use of the opportunities we've spotted?

Notes on group dynamics

Some people find it easier to be creative if you don’t try to discuss and evaluate the ideas you are coming up with. Instead of picking suggestions apart to find problems with them, use them to spark new possibilities. Unrealistic ideas may have a grain of genius that points you towards a great strategy!

Similarly, don't worry if your ideas don't neatly fit the questions you're asking yourselves. Or if the things you are coming up with are a jumble of tactics, targets, and goals. Simply record everything you come up with (“Let’s do a die-in!” “We need to undermine their PR offensive.” “The important thing is to be an inclusive and welcoming group.” “I know someone at the council who might be onside.”) Later, you can organise the suggestions to help decide which ideas to go for .

5. Make a plan

This is the stage to draw together all your analysis and ideas, and start making some decisions. You are looking for a course of action that has a good chance of being effective in your situation, and which everyone can put their weight behind. Consider the likely impact of different ideas on your campaign goals, and what resources they require from your group.

Usually this will include making decisions about: which players you will target, how you can influence them, what allies to reach out to, what tactics are likely to be effective, and how you can build your own capacity and increase momentum over time.

How much detail your plan includes will vary depending on a number of factors. For a small, tight group, planning three months ahead, your plan might look like a sequence of tactics in chronological order. A five year plan might just decide on an overall approach to making change, and a set of intermediary goals to check you are headed in the right direction.

Key questions

Can you break down your campaign goal, and start by planning towards more immediate ‘sub-goals’’?

  • What group or organisation will you target (as 'opponents'?)

  • What is the most effective way of putting pressure on that target?

  • How can you build the capacity of your campaign?

  • What potential allies can you reach out to?

  • What tactics or activities could be effective that fit your overall approach to making change, and the capacity you have available?

  • How can you increase momentum over time so you build up pressure on the target and keep drawing in new people to get actively involved?

Group dynamics tips

This is the stage in the process where you actually commit yourself to some ideas or approaches and reject others. The dynamics of this stage can be challenging. You may need to be quite ruthless about setting some ideas aside, so you can concentrate your energies all together. Not everyone is going to find that easy, especially if their ideas are rejected!

Remind yourselves you are looking for something ‘good enough to try’ and no plan will be perfect for everyone. Whatever you decide on, commit to reviewing how it is working, and making changes if necessary. It may help to record all the alternative suggestions so they are easy to access at that review stage.

If you have enough capacity, then choosing two to three approaches that will work together may be effective. For example, one sub-group could work on challenging plans for a new waste incinerator and a second group on encouraging people locally to reduce the amount of waste they produce.

6. Review and adjust the plan

Once you've spent a bit of time implementing your plan, stop to review your impact. Campaigning is like a series of experiments. Each time we develop a plan it is our best guess about what will work. Trying it out gives us information we need to make a better guess and try again.

A lot of people will naturally evaluate how well your events and activities are going, for example considering how many people came along, or whether an action went according to plan. A different way of evaluating the situation is to try to assess the actual impact of your strategy. For example, you might consider your blockade of an oil refinery successful if people stayed in position for a long time and had a good time. Evaluating the impact of your wider strategy might include questions like whether blockades were helping towards your goal of stopping the refinery.

Key questions

  • What things are going well and what can you learn from that? Are there things that are going less well? What can you do about that?

  • What’s your impact? What has changed in the real world as a result of your campaign activities? How does that change who has power in the situation?

  • Evaluating the situation. Has the situation changed, or do you have new information about it? Are there new opportunities you can make the most of? Do you face new challenges?

  • Adjust the plan. What changes do you need to make in order to make the most of things that are working well, and address issues?

Group dynamics tips

One key question is at what stage to do a review. It is important to honour the time you’ve spent creating a plan, and stick to it for long enough to give it a fair chance. However, the point is to win the campaign, not to follow the plan! So it is also important to spend time together working out if you are doing that, and what you need to change.

Make sure to recognise the work you have done, and the things you have achieved. If you aren’t having an immediate impact on your goals, morale may be low and people may be feeling sensitive to criticism. Dedicate time to noticing what has gone well and what you appreciate about each other and the group.

Templates

These templates help you write a good strategy plan. These are documents that you can fill out or use as a guide in writing your strategy. We highly recommend you to also look at the workshops below, for a more collaborative approach.

There is no “one right way” to capture and communicate all the elements of strategy. Some organisations have a preference for simple one-page tables. Others use longly narrative formats or complex documents that extend to 20 pages or more. Some templates we’ve seen used effectively are:

  • PDF: Template outline: This template lists suggested sections for your strategy document. For each section, this outline provides a list of suggested workshops you can use that can help to write that section.

  • DOCX: Key strategy questions: Open this document and write down the questions to develop your own strategy. You will need to find your own method of coming up with answers to these questions as a group.

  • PDF: Basic strategy grid (for printing): Print this document, and hand it out during a brainstorm. Small groups can write down some ideas by filling out the grid. Only suitable for strategy basics.

  • DOCX: Strategy performance indicators: Fill out this document to keep track of your objectives and progress made to achieve those objectives. Useful if you are a medium sized organisation, less useful for smaller groups.

Workshops

Check out our page with 20+ strategy workshops designed to help you and your fellow change-makers develop a winning campaign strategy. Use these instructions to host your own sessions and develop a strategy with your fellow change-makers:

👉 Strategy workshops

Doing strategy research

This is not a facilitation tool! However, it is an important part of the strategy planning process so we’ve included some key tips here.

See the Corporate Watch guide: 'Investigating Companies: a Do-it-yourself handbook' for a lot more detail on doing effective research for campaigns. Available for free on their website corporatewatch.org

Make the task more manageable by coming at it with a clear goal, e.g. 'find the information we need in order to have an influence.' Spread the workload by splitting up the stuff you need to know into different areas.

Look for people who've already done the research you need. For example, get tips from other campaigners working on the same issue, get information from sympathetic councillors or projects working in a similar area. There may be people who aren't campaigning as such, but who know a lot because they are directly affected. For example, talking to lots of other people who are claiming benefits will give you a broader view of the issues people face, compared to just hearing from people in your group.

Use the internet – with caution! There is a wealth of information on the web, but it can suck up a lot of your time. Try to get clear what you want to know before opening up a search engine! Make the most of human connections, e.g. use social media groups to make contacts, and then communicate in person.

Keep a note of where you found things out - e.g. the web address, the date of the newspaper, the contacts of the person you spoke to. That way it's easy to check back later. Inevitably, more questions will come up when you have a better overall understanding of the situation.

Methods for developing a strategy

External resources

Attribution

The following resources were reused in this guide:

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