The Core of Effective Advocacy Strategy

A Clipart Apple Core with red skin and what appear to be seed-eyesAn Apple Core

I’ve covered a lot of topics over the last few weeks. This post is intended to begin a new phase in this blog. If a strategy is a framework to deal with future uncertainty and scarcity of resources, then it matters what the focus of the strategy is, what aspect of the target  organizes the thinking about how to change that target. I’ll begin with an abstract statement of the core, and try to make it more concrete over later posts.

The core of an effective social justice strategy in dealing with a change target is to impact the processes that the target uses to keep itself going, changing these self-reproductive processes to make them more equitable, supportive, and productive of greater freedom and personal autonomy for devalued communities.

Whew! A mouthful…..


  • Most of the time, we try to impact the surface of an organization by advocating about a specific structural issue (policy, political position, practice). But the core of what any target does is keep itself as it is now.

    There is nothing passive about this maintenance of the status quo. Targets must actively use resources, capabilities, energy, etc. to actually do this. Though we tend to think of the status quo as not requiring maintenance effort (it is simply there), this is not true.

    While maintaining the status quo becomes more automatic over time, it still requires a significant proportion of all the time and resources the target has available. This is because all targets (for that matter, all of us) are beset by a variety of disturbances to their self-reproduction from both inside and outside. But, all this effort is often not obvious (in fact, it is deliberately made not obvious), and we don’t focus on it. We focus on public positions and individual decision makers. This is a strategic error, one of mistaking the surface for the core.

  • Put more bluntly, if you change the core of a target’s self-reproduction to promote better outcomes for your community, the organization is more likely to continue to do that.

  • You can’t engage these core processes by taking public advocacy positions, which is a typical technique. The battle over positions is a surface battle. Regardless of how that battle turns out, neither the advocacy group nor the target is changed at their core.

  • Remember that the main tactic used in individual advocacy effort is to threaten a systemic change in the target if they don’t go along with the individual advocacy goal. This approach is effective precisely because the target doesn’t want to change anything at the core.

  • Reproductive processes include governance, communication strategy, customer relation policies, bureaucratic workflow, target/outside world interface, and so on. Most of these are designed to reduce engagement with the outside world, to foster internal control over acquisition and use of resources, and to manage the political relationships both inside and outside of the target by minimizing the possibility of change. At the base of all this effort to manage the ongoing reproduction of the target is anxiety about loss of control. 

Often, the staff in the target organization are also divided between functionally surface roles and functionally core roles. The surface roles are performances; the core roles are the ones that make it possible for the organization to continue to be what it is. This reality has an impact on how we disturb the target to produce change.

Next Post: Roles as Targets of Change Strategy

How Advocacy Organizations Age

The Adaptive Cycle with 4 phases: Exploitation, Conservation, Release, Reorganization
The Adaptive Cycle

A Reminder Post before we go on:

Advocacy Organizations and Groups and their change strategies tend to age through similar phases (so can people, actually). This aging path is the default, and can be altered by conscious choice if not eliminated entirely:

Phase 1: In the early days, they are driven by passion for change, some level of general resources without many constraints, and the ability to create effective tactics faster and better than their target. Because of their target’s difficulty in responding well, they experience early success.
Phase 2: At some point, they hit a resource wall which is difficult to change. It can be funding, skills set, a more competent target, etc. This limit requires a strategic choice, whether anyone thinks of it as a strategic issue or just a crisis. In turn, this typically leads to internal conflict over governance, what to use available resources for, contradictions between public values and actual group or organization behavior, and a host of other issues with which I suspect all of you are familiar.
Phase 3: Out of this struggle, a consensus is built or forced, and those who don’t subscribe to the consensus leave, one way or another. The consensus is usually framed around the competency of the group’s operational skills, not strategy, and it tends to focus on reliable and expanding sources of funding and a complementary public face of success. There is, of course, a strategy in there somewhere. But it is implicit.
Phase 4: The group or organization stabilizes around the operational consensus, and continues. Because the new consensus does not reflect the original vision of change, the organization begins a long path in which the necessity of keeping the doors open undermines the stated mission. I think of this process as leading to a state of operational stagnation, in which the quality of outcomes are judged by the degree that they support reliable funding and reputation. This process of zombification can go on for decades and can span the entire replacement of staff, funding sources, changes in skill sets, and governance philosophies. Its stability is very hard to shift and tends to change only with a high level of corruption arising from the misuse of funds. As a former boss of mine said, “They never get you for not doing your mission. They only get you for misusing the money.”

Some Other Examples of Aging:

Creating and Maintaining the American Freeway System:
I grew up in Midland, Michigan, but the rest of my extended family lived in Detroit. Pre-Freeway, the trip to visit Detroit was 4 hours on two-lane roads traveling through many little towns. When the freeway was finished, our first trip was one hour and 15 minutes. Then repairs and maintenance started, and traffic use increased. Now, if there is no gridlock, the trip is 2 and a half hours. And it is getting worse as more maintenance is required.

The purpose of the freeway is becoming (more and more) an object for repair and maintenance and the money that can be made by doing that, and (less and less) a tool for rapid comfortable transportation.

New Humans: Brand new humans are full of possibilities, but as we age, we spend more time maintaining ourselves and less time learning and exploring possibilities.
Government: Programs start out with one purpose and gradually add rules and additional purposes until they sometimes end up doing the exact opposite of what they started out to do.
Large Corporations: When businesses start, they typically have one outcome-a product or a service. As they get bigger, they may go public and suddenly have shareholders who don’t care about the product, only how much money they are making. Often, the largest enterprises are only about money, and we find financial services corporations betting against their own customers in order to make money for individual brokers and managers.

The image at the top is a useful model of how complex systems adapt over time, and how they are replaced in the natural world. There are important lessons in the diagram for advocacy organizations and groups, as well as targets. and I will be exploring some of those in future posts.

Next Post: The Core of Effective Advocacy Strategy


The Future is Chock Full of Unintended Consequences


Blackboard with chalked written phrase, Unintended Consequences, that doesn't quite fit on the lines
Unintended Consequences


“We can control our choices, but we can’t control the consequences of those choices”
-Many authors in many contexts

Because strategies are often chosen in crisis, then frozen in policy, mission-related stories, governance, and other organizational infrastructure after the crisis has passed, the consequences of any strategic choice eventually become a day to day reality without requiring any particular awareness of those consequences on our part. Current reality becomes the focus of the organization, and how it got to be that way or what might have been if a different choice had been made is viewed as inconsequential. After enough time has passed, it is common for members of an organization, even the senior managers, to have no idea what their strategy “is” or how it actually developed. The strategy is “water to a fish”. It is there but it is everywhere, and can be safely ignored.

After the fact justification imposes a much more rational and planned notion of how the strategy came to be than was actually the case. Many times the How is not transmitted at all, and it is presented to the current organization members as a “fait accompli”.”This is how we do business.” This lack of reflection is reinforced by the use of operational plans and tactical responses rather than ongoing, open-ended, strategic conversation, as the guide for action by the members of the organization. Those operational plans always assume the current configuration of the organization as the unquestionable context for creating operational plans and implementing tactics. Even if the goal of the plan is to expand funding or organizational reach, the objectives are drawn from the current constitution of the organization. Only in failure do most organizations pay any attention to why they do things the way they do, and even then mostly to point fingers and assign blame. Moreover, the unconscious acceptance of the status quo makes even the detection of failure more difficult, much like the old metaphor of the frog and boiling water.

Because of this lack of strategic conversation and reflection, organizations tend to try to repeat their tactics and operational frameworks over and over again. After all, isn’t repetition the way to get good at something? But, all else being equal in the world of change advocacy, any repetition of a tactic or operational framework will be less effective than the previous one. Some examples:

  • Public Protest
  • Petitions
  • Shaming

Over the last half century, each of these tactics has become less effective. In the future they will continue to become less effective, all else being equal.

If all else isn’t equal, then a tactic can continue to produce good benefit. For example, ADAPT has successfully used direct action protest for several decades because the impact of people with significant disabilities blocking entrances with 300-pound electric wheel chairs has overtaxed the usual responses of law enforcement and elite power. Paddy wagons aren’t accessible, the wheelchairs themselves are impossible to move once they are shut down, etc. But the advantages of ingenious or creative uses of tactics are always temporary. There are no “7 steps to social change” techniques that will work forever.

In the big picture of social justice change, the major operational framework that social justice communities have pursued is some kind of legislative change, with community organizing as a close second. Today, we find that most of our legislative work is to stop the undermining of previous social justice gains. Where we are working for positive change, it tends to be either in communities who are trying to get basic civil rights for the first time or by pursuing small tweaks that certainly improve people’s lives, but don’t break new ground.

This is not to say there are no new ways of approaching social justice advocacy. It is only to say that the traditional approaches (actually, any approaches used over and over again) will  lose their impact over time and that this normal and expectable. To repeat, it is also inevitable.

This loss of tactical effectiveness through repetition is a kind of aging. Just as people age, so do organizations, social change tactics, and everything else that is real. In my next post, I’ll take a look at a model of the way everything ages.

Next Post: How Adaptive Systems Age

Strategy, Part 4: Another Real Strategy


A National Strategy for the Provision of Special Education in the United States

I was working with children who had brain injuries, including learning disabilities, in the early 1970’s, when there was an active discussion of what model to use in the federal legislation that would require the provision of education to all students, including those with disabilities. There were two alternatives being discussed.
The first was the use of a model that today would be called “wrap around”. The idea was that local resources would collaborate to provide services to children that included traditional education, family support, vocational and social skills support, etc.

The second was the model that was implemented and was the focusing of all responsibility for the educational support of students with disabilities on the local, intermediate, and state school systems.

In the parent community, this alternative was a no-brainer, since the apparent lesson of the civil rights era of the immediately preceding decade (the 60’s) was that civil rights laws had to be focused on a responsible party for litigation purposes, in order to enforce the civil rights framework of special education law. This notion was accurate as far as it went. With the 40th anniversary of the law, it is clear that litigation framed and clarified the meaning of the law to this day.

At the same time, it is also so clear that the current state of special education is a rigid, very partial realization of what advocates and parents had hoped for when the law was passed. Absent momentum for change like that which built and energized the parent movement in the early 70’s, the current law will remain as it is now only the subject of tweaking and puttering in the future. Of the values that supported the original, the only one that has deepened up to this day is the idea of expanding universal access to education, albeit to a weak and inadequate continuum of supports, and active resistance by educational systems to that value’s implementation.

It isn’t clear that the other alternative would have, on balance, produced a better outcome, but there is no question that it would have produced a very different education system, which is the point of this strategic discussion. If the wrap around system had been codified in law, I suspect our focus would be on collaboration agreements, and that it would be easier to perturb the system because of the number of local actors who would be actively and independently involved in the implementation of a set of supports for a specific student. It might also be easier to develop group supports that didn’t undermine the critical nature of customized support for a specific student.

It might  be interesting to consider a strategy of supports integration for students that used the framework of Medicaid covered services in a model like the Accountable Community Organization (ACO) that the Center for Medicaid/Medicare Services recently released. This model attempts to implement supports for issues in the social determinants of health along with other social supports, educational supports, and primary care integration. The goal of the model is to reduce health issue impact on life chances in non-health areas as well as health care for individuals and families in a specific community.

There are many more lessons about choosing strategies that can be learned from the choices that were made to implement special education, especially in financing and rights. But they would take up an awful lot of space, so I’ll put that discussion off to another day.

Next Post: Strategy, Part 5: Unintended Consequences of Strategies