Project Wonderful

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Theories of Change and the Practice of Organizing

Welcome guest blogger, Adam Briskin-Limehouse is an organizer, thinker, and returned Peace Corps volunteer who has worked on 9 campaigns. He’s originally from a small town outside of Charleston, SC. Recently, he was the Field Director for the winning Marylanders for Marriage Equality campaign. He can be found on LinkedIn or by e-mail:

First things first - I have to send a shout out to Hope Wood and entire coaching team that New Organizing Institute assembled for an amazing three-day training. Thank you. Much of the following is synopsising a portion of theirs and Marshall Ganz’s work on Theories of Change. Any screw ups are mine and don’t reflect on them.

A little bit more context on the training - NOI and range of organizers from 25+ year veterans of the union movement to first time organizers spent three days talking about how you build a campaign to scale from the first meetings of the senior staff all the way out to winning an election or accomplishing your goal. We started with a talk about Story of Us and Story of Now and then got into the nitty-gritty of strategy, tactics and timing.

Theory of Change fits into the the strategy of campaigning and serves as the germ of its Public Narrative (Story of Self, Us, and Now).

Why do we all do what we do?

Why do we work the crazy hours on issues and campaigns that most people tell us don’t matter? I can’t tell you why you do it. But I know why I do it: I do the work of organizing because I want to change our nation - taking it towards being a more just, more egalitarian place. So, what is the relationship between desiring change, working for it through organizing, and achieving that change? Power. The changes we all work towards take power to happen. But, power isn’t a thing that you can touch. It’s a relationship.

Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School professor, and the trainers at NOI teach that power comes in two flavors: Power Over and Power With. Power Over is a relationship where someone holds power over the decisions or resources that we need in order to create change in our lives. If they have power over us it means they thing they don’t need us or our resources to get what they want. So, the work of organizing is figuring out how to grow our own resources, or shrink theirs, so that we have equal need of each other and can negotiate change together. Power With is a relationship where we can create the change we need just by organizing our resources with others. For example, we might pool our resources to create a cooperative daycare or a community credit union.

Ok, so power is a relationship. So What?

Understanding this insight can empower us and, more importantly, the people we work with to draft effective Theories of Change. Your theory of change is the basic, fundamental statement of your campaign’s strategy. There are five general theories of change:

the Information Theory: if we educate decision makers, we’ll get the change we desire;
the Legal Theory: if we successfully sue the Decision Makers, then we will get the change we desire;
the Market Theory: if we boycott the Decision Maker’s products, then we will get the change we desire;
the Culture Theory: if we change the societies norms or how they are represented by Decision Makers, then we’ll get the change we desire.
the Organizing Theory: if we challenge and confront the power of the Decision Makers, then we will get the change we desire.

Most of the electoral work we do is based on some combination of the Information and Organizing Theories of Change - the decision makers in question being the voters. Issue work can be any or all of the five and can and does target decision makers from voters to CEOs and Senators. Earlier I said that your theory of change is your the basic statement of your strategy but what do I mean by strategy? Strategy can be defined as turning the resources you have into the power that you need to achieve the change that you want. A good Theory of Change tells your donors and your volunteers who you will be organizing, how organizing them will affect the change you want and what that change means, i.e. what your goal is.

Two examples of Theories of Change:

Let’s say that you are working for a City Council candidate who needs to win 50% + 1 of 135,000 voters. You’re Theory of Change would go something like this: “If we recruit enough volunteers to identify, persuade, and GOTV 25,000 voters in addition to our known base of 45,000 voters, then our candidate wins and will be able to enact the change that we want.” You’re organizing volunteers in order to talk to voters to persuade them to vote for the candidate you want.

A non-electoral example - Let us say that you want to improve how it treats its fulfulment employees: better pay, better hours, and better working conditions. You’re Theory of Change might go something like this: “If we persuade a majority of’s stockholders to support a vote at the company’s annual investor meeting on forcing to improve worker conditions at fulfulment warehouses, then ensure that we win the vote, then the policy we want will be enacted and the company will have to change its behavior.” In this case, you’re organizing’s shareholders in order to get them to directly change the company’s behavior - thus obtaining the change you desire. (Note: easier said than done - also, I’m not sure if’s corporate charter allows investors to vote on specific policy changes from the floor during shareholder meetings.)

Getting to the Point

As you sit down with your campaign teams, think about these questions to develop an effective theory of change or to refine the theory you’ve already been using:

Power Over Power With
1) What change do we want? 1) What change do we want?
2) Who has the resources to 2) Who has the resources to
create that change? create that change?
3) What do they want? 3) If ‘us,’ why is it not happening?
4) What do we have that they want? 4) How will you mobilize resources
in new ways to make it happen?

All Theories of Change adapt as you work towards your final goal - your understanding of who has the resources to create the change you desire can change and so can your understanding of what they want. The point is to think clearly about the work that we’re doing so that we end up being the protagonists of our own story rather than characters in the stories of those who already have power.

One last thing: if your theory of change doesn’t make sense in the context of the questions above or hasn’t been accomplishing what you want, go back to the beginning and redraft it. Don’t get so tied to a single theory that you waste the resources the people your organizing have.

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