Consumer Reports, Mozilla, Musings, Pitch Geek, Politics

Theory of Power

Ed. Note: I wrote this quickly just to get it all down. I’ll revisit this over time to clean it up, flesh it out. But you’ll get the point.


This article by Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (the HBR of the non-profit world) does a great job summarizing some eternal truths in advocacy work.

  1. It’s nearly impossible to measure the success of your work;
  2. Because it’s nearly impossible to isolate and control for the impact of any one activity;
  3. And it doesn’t matter, anyway, because your opponent will adjust their tactics to make sure it won’t work again and everything depends on context.

The article is nearly a decade old, but it was just shared with me by a colleague. It reinforces my belief that advocacy programs should be thought of as machines that run, process, and adapt in real-time, rather than plans or strategies to be carried out. It also shares a lot of my ‘metrics are bullshit‘ rant, especially when it comes to betting on smart people vs. well-crafted plans. I also put a lot of this forward in a ‘funding open‘ presentation a number of years ago. Basically, it’s as though someone took everything I’ve learned and put it forward in an elegant and expanded treatise.

However, the main reason the article is resonating with me is because it highlights the critical distinction between a ‘theory of change’ and a ‘theory of power’, and the need for organizations to ground their work in the latter.

‘Theory of change’ has no set definition. So it’s likely that a lot of organizations already include a deep analysis of their power within that frame. (As an example, the opening summary of the Wikipedia article on Theories of Change nods to the role of power, but doesn’t mention the topic again, focusing, instead, on logic models of causality.) But I define them like this:

  • Theory of Change: How it’s going to work.
  • Theory of Power: Why it’s going to work.

Your theory of change should lay out what you’re going to do. Your theory of power should lay out why anyone will give a fuck. Too often, theories of change ignore the harsh realities and limitations of whether you are truly able to effect negative or positive consequences for your target. They focus on pressure points and levers vs. your capacity to actually apply the force required to win.

Combining these two things–the SSIR article on the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, and the intangible and unpredictable nature of advocacy work–you arrive at a theory of power that looks like this. (And like all good models, it’s alliterative.)

Comprehensive: There is no way, in advance, of knowing whether you should run a grassroots campaign, write the perfect op-ed, train people in new approaches, write a PhD thesis, get on television, draft the perfect policy whitepaper, convene the key decision-makers, etc. So you have to do all of it. Every part needs to be addressed:

  1. Thought Leadership: An eloquent and charismatic leader needs to ply their TED talk skills in front of the right audiences.
  2. Journalism: The press has to keep the issue in the zeitgeist, define the terms, and build understanding of the issue.
  3. Policy: People with deep expertise have to craft the solution: the structural changes you’re trying to achieve.
  4. Political: Elected representatives have to understand how much the electorate cares and start making it part of their platforms.
  5. Grassroots: Activists with pitchforks need to maintain pressure and keep your target in the crosshairs
  6. Backroom: Skilled diplomats need to split the business community in half, aligning powerful companies against other powerful companies, negating their money and power.
  7. Socialization: Mainstream publications and personalities need to convince the population that your solution is fundamentally aligned with their core values and how the world should work.

Leaving any of these areas unchecked creates an escape route for your target. It’s like the old adage in sports: Offensive players only need to win one exchange. Defenders have to win every time. Your opponent needs only one chink in the armour in order to escape.

Coordinated: The scope of work required is (usually) beyond the grasp of any one organization. So the way to get better and stronger is to ensure all of the seven areas are working in coordination with each other. Coordination creates an exponential multiplier on the total power you can wield.

Constricting: I’m forcing this a bit to make the alliteration work, but the core of this is that you have to ramp up the pressure on your target over time. It’s not a marathon or a sprint. It’s a jujitsu fight. You need to slowly, methodically, and constantly ramp up the pressure across all seven battlefronts, leaving your target exhausted and spent, with nowhere to go and no more options.

Like the SSIR article states, this is a lot of work and, afterward, you may realize that 90% of it wasn’t required. Turns out that all you needed was a well-timed phone call from one person to their friend with a powerful job title. But you have no way of knowing that in advance. And focusing on a single strategy turns a well-crafted comprehensive approach into nothing more than a bet. The efficiency derives from optimizing for the minimum time to a guaranteed result, not the minimum time to a possible result. If you do it all in parallel, you’ll get there a lot faster. (This could be a post in itself.)

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