Recipe for advocacy success

    HOW TO

  • Combine the right ingredients in your campaign
  • Win your target audience over to your cause

Yes, advocacy is about winning people over to a cause. No, you don’t get there by telling them everything there is to know about it. Advocacy is the art of less: You’ll only be effective if you get exactly the right message to the right people, through the right medium, and at the right time. As you could expect, most of the work is therefore in the preparation rather than the interaction.

There is no shortage of good causes competing for our attention. Endorsing one inevitably means de-emphasizing others. It also involves taking some kind of action, which is rarely cost-free: We must reallocate scarce funds, promote risky change, accept painful concessions, or denounce things we once tolerated. We only embrace a good cause because something about it clicks with us at an existential level. Advocacy is all about finding out what that is. As with a recipe, there are a number of ingredients to bring together and steps to follow if you want to get it right.

Listening is a key to success

The starting point is what you could call the cast of characters. It’s not enough to identify who you need to persuade. You must do what NGOs describe as a “stakeholder analysis,” and review all the people involved. Who are your cause’s established champions? How could they also be a liability? Who are the more likely converts, and what are their incentives to change? Who are the usual skeptics, and how can you overcome them? And who are your most dogged adversaries? The only real way to know the value of your arguments is by weighing them up against their strongest opponents.

Within that cast, some people are targets for cultivation. You must build a broad array of personal connections, to both understand the playing field and become a player yourself. For instance, you won’t get much out of officials and journalists unless you meet them regularly; for them to pay attention, act as relays, or simply do you a favor, you must first make yourself useful, repeatedly. Likewise, building a grassroots movement or a public awareness campaign takes much time and effort. These painstaking investments must start long before you can expect anyone to mobilize on your behalf.

Although it’s tempting to think of advocacy as an act of speaking out, listening is a key to success. If you do too much of the talking, you quickly end up rambling and diluting your message. You want, on the contrary, to grasp how others think, not just to know how to influence them but also to assess your impact. And that often means paying attention to weak signals. Too many advocates do the opposite: They like nothing more than a campaign that “makes a lot of noise,” even if it has modest results. Real progress is less about media clamour than dull processes—legislative reforms, judicial proceedings, complex new policies, shifting perceptions, and so on.

All this leads us to the crux of advocacy: interests. The core weakness of most advocacy efforts is the belief that people have an inherent interest in espousing a just cause. But if they haven’t already done so, that’s because other agendas are getting in the way. How many good causes suffer from self-promotion, groupthink, force of habit, or base material interests? Accepting this reality is what gives an edge to lobbyists—advocates who joined the dark side of the force. Those serving the common good must work even harder to understand the interests of their target audiences, frame their message in those terms, and tilt the balance from prosaic motivations to more noble ones.

That takes a certain amount of elaboration. Ultimately, a cause will be adopted not as principle but as policy. This is where the heavy lifting begins: You must transform your cause into something tangible. Effective advocates won’t wait for others, such as diplomats, government officials, or parliamentarians, to do so. They will summarize compelling documentation, help build law cases, float draft policies, suggest how to market them, and so on. Again, that’s just what lobbyists do… whereas advocates tend to be too immersed in their cause, hoping that their target audience will come over to them.

However, a complete vision for change can be self-defeating unless you infuse it with a healthy dose of realism. Advocates, by nature, are passionate and unyielding. What keeps them going is a hope for widespread recognition and fundamental transformation. That may lead them to neglect the smaller, achievable asks that pave the road to their greater ambitions.

A cause will be adopted not as principle but as policy

This approach works all the better if you get one thing right: timing. Positive change isn’t a smooth curve; it happens in fits and starts. Your efforts will pay off partly as a result of circumstance, when a window of opportunity opens. But for you to seize it, everything must be ready: Your network must be strong, your ideas mature, your relays willing. In that sense, you never wait for an opening; you prepare for it relentlessly. That’s how the advocate, whom no one appointed, slips in to set the agenda.

Another critical ingredient comes next: pressure. By following all the above, you may have made it easier to take advantage of the right moment. But precisely when conditions are optimal, a good cause will need some oomph to back it up. Advocates usually understand pressure as media attention, but newsworthiness is by nature impossible to sustain. Consider, therefore, more lasting forms of pressure such as grassroots movements, investigations, and litigation. Pressure must usually be built up strategically, over time, and applied in full force when the stars align.

Finally, there is a crucial element of teamwork. Advocates know pretty much everything about their cause, and that’s why they are so legitimate. Yet they also risk locking themselves into a niche—not unlike academics who are understood only by their peers. Some advocates turn meetings into an echo chamber, to little effect. By contrast, successful advocates break out of the bubble by pairing up with savvy professionals in such fields as media campaigning, litigation, or policy-making, who help them get their point across.

Advocacy, ultimately, is about looking beyond one’s truth and passion, and understanding where our casue lies in the broader landscape of human concerns. That is how we give ourselves the best chances of winning others over.

26 July 2023