Learning from life or death: Five techniques that will help us think more strategically

The activist inside me often wants to jump out. Wants to tell the world I think something is unfair. To challenge a decision I feel is wrong.

The campaigner I have become reminds me to hold back, just long enough to consider exactly what I want to achieve. Then how.

I know that as a charity or non-profit (NGO) campaigner, the decisions I make won’t lead to a life or death situation. Although the success, or not, of many campaigns can have an impact on this.

Military campaigns, though, can often be a case of life or death. They must be based on rigorous strategy. A crystal clear aim underpinned by compelling evidence and in-depth analysis.

Recently I’ve been working with military service personnel talking about NGO campaigning. I’ve learned some interesting things about military campaign strategy and been mulling over where the synergies might be with NGO campaigning and what I could learn. Although the ends are very different, the means in terms of strategic thinking can be strikingly similar.

Here are my top-five techniques…

1. The end state

The end state is the ultimate goal. In NGO campaigning terms, what success will look like. Expressed in a way so you know when you’ve won. And in the NGO sector, one person’s reasonable compromise might be another’s complete cop-out. Another reason to agree on the end state at the start of a campaign.

2. Rules of engagement

‘A directive issued by a military authority controlling the use and degree of force, especially specifying circumstances and limitations for engaging in combat’


Charities are governed by charity law. And we should all adhere to other laws relevant to campaigning. But every organisation will have its own ‘rules of engagement’ for campaigning too, whether written down or not. For NGOs, these will relate to the values which are important to the way the organisation operates. They will guide the approach it will take in campaigning; the tone of messages and type of tactics it is broadly comfortable with.

3. Collateral Damage

Collateral damage is incidental to the intended target. In campaigning terms these are effects of the campaign that weren’t planned for and can be positive or negative. These changes are also some of the outcomes of your campaign. Exploring what these may be, at the start of a campaign, can help to mitigate against the negative effects a campaign may have.

4. Human terrain analysis

In military campaigns this is about understanding cultural meaning, contexts and interpretation. Identify other pressure groups, those who might be supportive and those who might be against your campaign. Your analysis will help you to understand their motivations, pressures and what their strategies might be. Ultimately, the aim is to identify any potential unforeseen issues. For an NGO campaign strategy, this technique helps us to analyse players with an interest in the campaign, in order to create strategies that are most likely to influence them and others.

5. War Gaming

Reviewing the strategy and playing out different scenarios can be an effective way of double checking decisions that have been made about the campaign. ‘War gaming’ is not a phrase I have heard outside a military context, but the idea behind it makes sense for NGO campaigning. It can lead to changes within the strategy and sometimes even the aim. It can also create opportunities to re-assess a campaign strategy in light of a fast-paced external environment in which a campaign will likely be functioning.

How’s your strategic thinking?

Strategic thinking is at the heart of effective military and also successful NGO campaigning. The end goals are very different, but there are critical decision points throughout both. I’ve described some techniques common to military strategy that could be used in NGO campaigns to help strengthen the likelihood of success.

For NGO campaigning the passionate activist within me still has a central role to play but I’m convinced that strategic thinking is essential to success – driving and directing a burning desire for change.

Sarah runs the Certificate in Campaigning and is a consultant, trainer and author in NGO advocacy campaigning. Connect with Sarah @SarGilbert.

The original ground-breaking campaigning course is now recruiting for October 2014.

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Avatar photo Sarah Gilbert is an experienced campaigner. She is an independent consultant and runs projects for NCVO on campaigning and influencing, including the Certificate in Campaigning and Leadership in Campaigns. She also coaches campaigners, has guest lectured for Roehampton University, and is a member of the advisory board for the University of Westminster's MA in Campaigning, Communications and Media. Sarah sits on the Campaigning Effectiveness Advisory Board and writes blogs, articles and tweets about how to influence people and the sector’s role in campaigning.

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