In my last seven years of organizing in the immigrant rights movement –– working with both directly impacted and allied communities –– I’ve routinely encountered the phrase “good strategy.” There seems to be consensus that we need “good strategy” in order to transform dominant institutions, laws, budgets, and policies, undo and repair the harm of colonialism and racial capitalism, and truly sustain the well-being of all people. But what does the term “good strategy” actually mean? When I hear impassioned speeches or debates using the term, I search for a clear definition and meaning. In organizing spaces, there are some assumptions baked into the phrase, but no explicit definition, or maybe just a definition that I find to be lacking or confusing.
I would like to put forward a definition of “good strategy” that is both explicit and holds the holistic realities of what I believe it will take to build the “Resilient Organizations” needed to win long-lasting and tangible change. I believe “good strategy” is multifaceted, consisting of ten components. Some of these components will be very familiar to experienced organizers (goals, theory of change, etc.). Others, such as culture and governance, will be familiar, but maybe feel separate from “strategy”; however, I strongly believe that all of the components are critical to building strategies that can contend with megacorporations and the government bodies beholden to them, and therefore we must take them into consideration when we are developing our collectives’ strategies.
The 10 components of good strategy are: Goals; Underlying Analysis; Hypotheses; Tactics; Narrative; Culture; Resources; Governance; Structure; and Power Dynamics.
These components are neither hierarchical nor sequential. In my experience, all good strategic processes are deeply iterative, moving through the 10 components in different orders at different times, again and again.
Components of good strategy
A strategic plan is really a test to see if what we thought might be effective is actually effective. We need to be able to measure what is working and what isn’t, and therefore we need a clear goal or goals to strive for and measure our own success off of. Goals help us assess. Goals are important to give us focus, clarity, motivation, and tools to assess our progress or lack thereof. Goals within our organizing work include external goals, such as a policy or law we are trying to create or change; and internal goals, for example how many people we want to join a campaign. We need clear and measurable goals at every step of our organizing.
One of the main downfalls I have seen in organizing projects is choosing goals that are too large. These goals are often impossible to measure and are too lofty to feel grounded and motivating to the people we are organizing. An example in my own organizing work is when the organization that I worked with tried to get people motivated around the goal of “ending deportation.” At the end of the day, that goal felt too overwhelming to actually be useful. We then clarified our work to say that ending deportation is our north-star vision and that our goal for the next 2 years is to end the 287(g) program, a federal program that enables local police departments to contract with ICE. People felt that this campaign goal was clear and tangible, and also was one step on the pathway towards winning our much longer-term vision of ending deportation. Other goals in the campaign included clear metrics for growth in chapter and number of media hits with our talking points.
Analysis is a shared understanding of why the world is the way it is, and why we have yet to accomplish our goals. Analysis outlines the root causes of the problems we are facing and should also include a “diagnosis,” or an understanding of what are the more immediate blocks or current external factors that are impeding our success. An example for the climate crisis could include an analysis that cites colonialism and racial capitalism, and then a diagnosis that breaks down the current makeup of power in the US, also called a power map, and how that current power make-up is impeding the progress needed.
Having a clear underlying analysis is important for several reasons. People may join your organizing project because they feel activated around a present-day problem, and might stop organizing if that one problem is solved. The more people are grounded in the root causes of why things are the way they are, the more people we will have committed to our collective struggle for the long-haul. Secondly, strong shared analysis helps a group find the balance between long-term vision and ideology, and tangible organizing goals. Inevitably, our current-day campaigns and goals will feel insufficient given the scale of the crises we face. Shared analysis helps a group articulate: “We understand what is actually at fault here. We don’t think this tangible goal is the end of the path AND we think it is a necessary step that will help carry us further and build more power along the way.”
A hypothesis in its simplest terms is an “if-then” statement. It outlines your broadest guess of how to address the problem or blocks identified in your analysis and diagnosis. For example, if your diagnosis of why climate issues have yet to be taken seriously in Congress includes an understanding that those in power feel more accountable to corporations than their actual constituents, then an overarching hypothesis could be: “If we elect a candidate from a working-class background without using any corporate money or influence, then that elected official will be actually accountable to their constituents and our community will have real leverage to make positive change.” This is one dominant theory of change.
The scale and complexity of the problems we are facing are immense and require multiple hypotheses/theories of change working together all at once –– and one group of people can only do so much. Running focused tests will help our collective movements learn a lot. Coalitions and multiple groups working together using different theories of change can be a huge asset to our shared goals. The clearer we are with both our goals and our theories of change, the better we can track and assess our progress, learn what is working in different geographic and political contexts, and shift our strategies as needed. We may not agree with every theory of change, but if we are clear with what we are testing, then we can assess what is working and what isn’t.
Simply put, tactics are what you do. You take your goal(s) and your hypothesis/theory of change, and you ask “what activities do I think it will take to accomplish these goal(s), using this theory of change?”
For example, To continue the scenario from above, the tactics to achieve the goal of changing policies in a community through the theory of change or hypothesis of electing a working-class candidate could include door-knocking, canvassing, phonebanking, running tv ads, holding house parties, etc. To break that down even further, the initial goal itself is the successful election of a particular candidate, and the theory of change could be running a grassroots campaign that depends on people, not big money. The tactics would therefore be more specific, relying more on activities that reach people through relationships and energy, instead of money. So the tactics would be community meetings, house parties, community canvassing events, phone banks and text banks, and maybe even a neighborhood block party.
Any of these tactics in isolation are not sufficient to accomplish the goals. Tactics build and depend on one another in combination to form, and test, your hypothesis/theory of change.
Everybody, whether they think about it consciously or not, has some sort of world view and underlying assumptions that impact how they make decisions, how they do or do not interact with politics, the work force, their communities, etc. Our world views and assumptions are built by our families, education, what media we consume, who we interact with daily, what we read, etc.
As we design our tactics based on our goals and theory or theories of change, we must take into consideration who we are trying to interact with (our base or audience), what they already believe and what we want them to believe. Then we must consider how we are going to get them from their current beliefs and assumptions to the worldview we think is advantageous to our goals and theories of change. Narrative is not just about social media posts and press hits (though it is also about that), it must be embedded in every layer of our organizing. How are we promoting or pitching our events to local leaders? What do our trainings and political education materials say? Narrative must be considered at each level of organizing.
Culture is the way in which we work. Culture is made up of spoken and unspoken rules, norms and rhythms. The Wildfire Project defines culture as collective practices that express collective values, with a practice defined as a repeated behavior, or any action we take again and again over time.
These practices include how a group communicates, asks or does not ask questions, or the ways which the group does or does not engage with conflict. Culture can also include implicit and explicit work-place policies such as compensation and salary, work schedule and hours, time off policies, leave of absence, etc. Culture also entails components like song, dance, ritual, spirituality, ways individual and collective healing are brought into a team’s practices. The practices can feel in line with shared values, or out of line with shared values. Overall, culture determines how the work feels to every individual in a collective.
My not-so-hot-take: if the work feels bad, it eventually will cease to get done. People will leave. People will hurt one another. If people are too fed up, tired, hurt or angry to do any work, then how can you be truly strategic? Bad culture leads to bad strategy, and then eventually, no strategy at all.
Resources are the tangible (or sometimes intangible) things you need to actually do the work. In late-stage capitalism, the most common and useful resource is money. Money is a loaded word to nearly everybody, but it and other resources (physical space, materials needed, etc.) really do enable or prevent your tactics frombeing implemented. For example, you might have an idea for an amazing art-based action as one of your tactics to reach your goal, but if the materials to build the art are going to total $1000 and you just started and have no money or infrastructure yet (where are you going to build the art?), then you need to take a step back and revisit the plan.
Resources are not something to figure out independent of your tactics and overarching game plan, it is an integral part of it. A fundraising event is a critical tactic to reach your goals. The best strategic plans integrate fundraising and infrastructure building into the plan itself. This may feel pretty straightforward for the example of one-off action, but when our goals require a complex series of tactics, multiple theories of change, and hundreds to thousands of people, then we need more money. A lot more. One of the biggest barriers to long-lasting power building is the collective lack of talking about money and processing our personal and collective traumas and experiences with money. This leads to fear and anger when it comes to money, which is valid to a point, but doesn’t help us achieve our goals. Working through our relationships with money is critical in moving from a belief in scarcity to abundance, in building the fundraising skills needed to powerfully resource our work, and in making sustainable good strategies.
Governance is how you make decisions. Who has the power and ability to make decisions within your collective and how does that happen? Do people in the organization or collective know how decisions are made? What is explicit and what is convoluted or hidden?
Governance is a part of strategy because a “strategic” plan on paper is useless if a group of people doesn’t want to actually implement the plan. If people don’t understand or like your goal or the tactics, they probably won’t do it –– and why should they? We must consider the throughline between strategic ideation and implementation, and governance is a key part of that throughline. Governance is complex and difficult, and there are many arguments for different structures. Whatever you decide, make it explicit, make it a test, learn from it, and change it as needed.
Structure is the way in which you organize your organization or collective. Structure includes the positions and teams you have, their roles and responsibilities, the systems through which people communicate, who meets with one another and how frequently, how information is shared and to whom, and the containers in which decisions are discussed and made.
Finding a structure that works is an integral part of strategy. Your structure will likely shift across time depending on your goals, theory of change, tactics, culture and governance system, and the stage of the collective itself. An ineffective structure, or structure that doesn’t take into consideration the cultural and governance needs, will hinder good strategy.
Simply put, unless given specific attention and care, power dynamics from our dominant culture will inevitably manifest themselves in any organizing space. As our dominant culture is racist, anti-black, sexist, ableist, classist, transphobic and homophobic, this will impact different identities differently, but will ultimately be bad for everyone. We need to take the very real and harmful power dynamics that exist in mainstream society into account and work to create cultures, structures, and governance systems that center those most directly impacted by state violence and generations of harm. Otherwise, the very real pain and violence will, either quickly or gradually, prevent us from accomplishing our goals together.
This is not about identity politics. This is about creating and practicing the world we need, where harm is acknowledged, repair happens, and our work can be sustained for the long-haul. This will take honesty and vulnerability and likely, working through feelings of shame. The group must acknowledge who is getting to make decisions and move work forward, either explicitly and implicitly? Whose voices are being listened to by the group and whose aren’t? At what pace is the work moving and for whom does that work or not work?
Once power dynamics are made explicit, then a group can start the work to repair any harm done and move towards a culture that holistically serves the collective. This is messy, imperfect, difficult, always evolving work. If we don’t disrupt harmful power dynamics in our internal collectives, how can we ever attempt to do so at a larger scale?
Build, test, assess, repeat
This list may feel overwhelming, but none of us have to be experts in all the components. In fact, we can’t be. No one person can build the power needed to contend with what we are facing, after all.
In order to begin true investment in all ten components of strategy, we first need to take a step back and take stock of our organizations, chapters, or collectives. When we make plans for the year, which components of strategy do we prioritize and which do we neglect? For the components that are lacking, I recommend we make plans to develop our own and others leadership over the next few years.
Creating leadership development plans and systems to build collective strategies that take all ten components into consideration will look different for every group, of course.
For some collectives, all of the teams and structures might already exist, but not be truly prioritized or thought of as important to the overall strategy. This will require a cultural shift, explicit conversations about how strategy is made, who gets to be in the room, whose voice is actually heard, who has rank and why. Culture and likely structure will need to shift for these types of collectives.
For other collectives, this may be a more straightforward lack of leadership/skills issue. In this type of collective, determine who is interested in learning what and create a plan for each person, over the course of the year, to read 1-2 resources and ideally, go to a training where they can not only learn skills, but also find community and support. I have included a list of resources at the end of this article.
Other collectives may lack the structures or teams needed to hold each component of strategy. In this case, identify what teams you do and don’t have, and then make shifts accordingly, considering also how these teams interact. If you have a development team, but that team doesn’t have much to do with strategy making, change this. Bring your development people into the strategic process at the start. If you don’t have a team thinking about your collective’s culture, figure out a way to add one. Hire new people, or contract with other organizations and collectives that are experts in organizational structure.
All of these shifts will take time and patience. Shifting organizational structure and culture and developing new skills is hard, but I believe these are necessary time and energy investments.
My hope is that this framework will be useful to our organizing work across the board, for staff-run organizations, for volunteer-led chapters and collectives, for really any group of people who get together and want to make a difference in their community and the broader world. My hope is that this will help us build collectives and organizations that truly make good strategies and build holistically healthy, long-lasting infrastructure that can actually take on the corporations and politicians who are violently attacking communities of color and poor and working class people, enabling climate change, and in so many ways hurting us all.
Here are some resources so that we can all take the next step to invest a little deeper in one or many of components required for good strategy.
Goals, analysis, hypotheses and tactics:
Culture & Power Dynamics:
Governance and Structure:
Convergence is pleased to co-publish this article with The Forge.
Featured image courtesy of Never Again Action.