“To fight and conquer in all our battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” — Sun Tzu
This is for all of you dreamers and idealists out there, you activists and selfless souls dedicating your life to a cause. I hate to do this, but I’m gonna rain on your parade for a minute here. It’s a little tough love, but I’m here to help.
Have you ever had the fleeting thought that a lot of what you are involved in might be a waste of time? And money? That what you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into might not be making the difference you had hoped it would?
It isn’t a problem of motivation. It’s a problem of planning. It’s likely that what you’re doing isn’t strategic enough: a common problem. And one that we can easily fix.
So basically, peacebuilding strategy, strategy for social change, justice, or whatever you want to call it, is my jam. I get hired out to help NGOs, non-profits, UN agencies, and the like to build strategies for change. And in my free time, I do it for fun to help the activist types I hang around with.
The NGO/non-profit worker carries out the same grant-funded project year after year, hoping it will somehow make some difference in the world. The activist hits the streets, shouting about whatever issue they care about, wishing somebody will listen. The problem with both is quite similar: they are well-intentioned, but they struggle to explain how their actions translate to tangible change. There is seldom a clear strategy. And when there is, it often doesn’t make sense. There is something about all this that confuses people. So they put their trust in some vague idea that whatever they are doing will somehow make a difference. It’s often quite a leap of faith.
But to be honest with you, strategic peacebuilding, et al. is not so difficult as you may think. Once you know the basics, there is something intuitive about it. I’m here to demystify the process for you.
The 10 Steps of Strategic Peacebuilding
I’ve organized my process here so you can develop a peacebuilding strategy yourself. Once done, you can have confidence that you are making a change, and you’ll be able to explain how. You can do this!
Step zero: Pre-planning
Let me fill you in on my approach before we begin. The standard process most groups use to develop a strategy is this: 1) what actions and activities are we doing? 2) what issue do we want to change? 3) how do we want to change it? 4) how can what we’re doing change it? 5) is there anything else we can do? But this is all wrong! This thinking keeps you stuck thinking inside the box. I’m gonna flip this process on its head. Get ready!
So the first thing you have to do is to cast out your previous way of thinking. Forget everything you are doing, and every activity you’re involved in that you think is going to make a change. Forget what others are doing and forget everything you think you know about how to make change.
If you’re working for an organization or a network, get your core team together. If you’re working with an informal group of friends, assemble your crew. If you’re working solo, you’re good to go, but consider grabbing a friend to bounce ideas off of. Also, it is helpful to involve people who are knowledgeable about the issue you’re working to change and who can share diverse perspectives and ideas. If you or your core team members aren’t affected directly by the issue you hope to address, be sure to invite participation from persons who are. Your strategy may not be appropriate otherwise.
Now get a notebook. And a pen. And let’s get started.
OPTIONAL: For those interested, I’ve made a free downloadable Peacebuilding Strategy Planning Worksheet that you can work off of to write your strategy out as it develops, following the ten steps below. It’s based on a tool called the logical framework (log-frame). Those of you working with NGOs may be familiar, but it is a useful worksheet for anyone.
Step 1: Identify one problem you wish to change (be specific!)
The first thing you need to do is get laser-focused on the issue you would like to solve. Don’t think about it generally. Don’t go on a tangent thinking about all the many associated issues. Choose one issue you want to change. Now, you want to identify what you consider to be the root cause of that issue. There are likely to be many causes. You will choose one.
At this point, it may be helpful to consult others with insider knowledge, invite others to the process, or do a little research on your own. Perhaps there are some articles or reports that analyze the problem in detail. This can be helpful. If you’re working in a group (small or large), you can make this a brain-storming session. Discuss the main causes and effects of the issue at hand.
Then you must choose the one cause of the issue that jumps out to you as the most pressing. This is the issue you want to solve, to address, to change in some way. The more specific you can be, the better. Now write it out. Write it out as clearly and succinctly as you possibly can. Go for one or two sentences.
Step 2: Determine the scope of change you wish to make
Now consider who is affected by this problem. How are they affected? Does it affect one community more than another? How does it affect women? How does it affect men? What about persons in the LGBTQ+ community? How does it affect young children? What about adolescents and youth, or the elderly? How does it affect different ethnic or religious groups, or social classes?
When you consider these questions above, were you implicitly thinking about people in your own community? People in your city? In your state? General region? Nation? Is it a trans-national issue (i.e., crossing borders), or were you perhaps even thinking on a global scale?
Recognizing this will help you to identify the scope of the problem. Are you going to work at a national level, state level, community level, etc.? There is no right or better answer. All levels are connected. And sometimes focusing on your community can make ripples that affect wider change, and vice versa. But you will focus your energy on one level. So choose one and clarify its parameters.
Go for 2–3 sentences this time. Identify the scope of the change you wish to make. By this, I mean which level will be your primary focus. Also, describe which group (or groups) of persons are harmed most by the problem, and how are they harmed. This is sort of like your rationale for choosing this scope. And it will help keep you focused on who you’re trying to help in the first place.
Step 3: Create a vision
Now you will develop a vision of what the situation will look like when the identified problem has been resolved. This is like an imagined future.
Now I know what you’re thinking. I hear it all the time. And I’m gonna let you know right now, we’ll have none of this. People always say things like “yes, I’d like to see xyz happen, but …” or “sure, we’d like for xyz to happen, but that’s just not possible because blah blah blah.” So please, stop that right now. I don’t want to hear any of it.
This is the vision step. We’re not thinking about how we will make this change or about the challenges we’ll face in the process. This all comes later. What we are doing now is we’re dreaming of a better, more peaceful, and just world where this problem you speak of no longer exists. Poof! It’s gone, done, finished! You’ve solved the problem! Congratulations! Now describe to me what it looks like. Think in five to ten years, what would you like to see? What is the best-case scenario, the best possible outcome? Use your imagination.
Again, write it down. Go for 2–3 sentences this time. And don’t forget to consider how it will affect the group (or groups) of people you have identified are harmed the most by this problem. How will their lives be different in this imagined future?
Step 4: Map structural changes (and new structures) needed to achieve your vision
Here we are taking a step back to identify concrete outcomes that will contribute to achieving our vision. Any lasting change needs two things. These go hand in hand. The first is structural change, and the second is cultural change. In this step, we’ll focus on the first.
Structural changes are things like changes in institutions, policies, practices, or any sort of structure.
You’ll need to identify specifically what structures, policies, etc. need to change. When doing this, remember to think within the scope you defined in the last step. For example, if you’re at the national level you may seek to change in national-level legislation, or change of policies or practices within specific government institutions, corporations, or large organizations. And if you’re looking at more localized change, you may be addressing state laws or perhaps policies or practices within local institutions like, for example, your city police department or your university.
Now again, write these out, specifically: what existing structures, institutions, policies, or practices would need to change to contribute to achieving the vision?
When considering the structural element, also consider what new structures, policies, or platforms could be created that would contribute to the vision. These aren’t something you will create directly or immediately, but something that could develop over time with broad participation.
A few sentences on this will do as well, specifically: what new structures, policies, or platforms could be created that don’t currently exist (that would contribute towards achieving the vision)?
To ensure approaches taken here are appropriate and also strategic, in this step (and the following two), you must have an understanding of the concepts of structural and cultural violence. I recommend that you read my blog post, A Typology of Violence. Even if you are familiar with these concepts, this blog post can be a useful tool for you to generate strategic ideas. For this section, scroll to the section on structural violence.
Step 5: Consider behavioral and cultural shifts that will help realize your vision
Moving on. Here we are talking about changes in behaviors and associated cultural shifts needed to achieve your vision. Cultural change at this level might apply to a specific element of culture like the culture of silence about gender-based violence, or ethnic nationalism, or common perceptions that support war, for example, either amongst the general population or amongst a sub-culture or specific group of people.
Again, consider the scope of change you seek to make. You may consider changes like addressing discriminatory practices within your religious community or in the culture of your organization, or perhaps harmful behaviors common amongst certain members of the community, like local businesses, teachers, parents, etc.
A few sentences on this will do as well, specifically: What cultural changes are needed? What common behaviors need to change? Or relationships amongst people? Amongst which groups?
Again, read through my post on A Typology of Violence to not only ensure what you put down here is appropriate, but that it is also strategic. There you will find many details that will help you generate ideas. You can scroll down to the section on cultural violence.
Step 6: Name key persons or groups that can influence change
There is a useful tool developed for this by an organization called CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (CDA). It is called the ‘Key People; More People’ approach. They have quite detailed resources, all publicly available; however, the general idea here is that you’re going to figure out if your strategy for change involves ‘key people,’ ‘more people,’ or both.
Here is a general overview of what I’m talking about here. This will help you determine your approach. Consider who can influence the structural and cultural changes you identified in the previous step; thus, these are the people you need to engage with. They may be friend or foe. If they are friends or allies, you can support them. If they are not friendly or if they are contributing to the problem, then you have other strategies to adopt. For now, just focus on who can influence change, regardless of who is friend or foe.
Key People: These are certain people, or groups of people, who have a particular influence on the structures you wish to change or the elements of culture you wish to influence. These may be political, religious, or community leaders. They may be business leaders, respected persons, or cultural icons. They may be warlords or gang leaders, policymakers or lawmakers, journalists or media personalities, young people at risk of being involved in violence, military leaders, educators, advocacy groups, civil society leaders, youth organizations, women’s organizations, or anything of the sort.
More People: This can be the general population or a particular segment of the population. The idea is that, to make any particular structural or cultural change, large segments of the population need to be involved in pushing for said change. For example, a ‘more people’ approach may be focused on engaging young people, farmers, parents, teachers (i.e., all/more teachers)an entire religious community, college students, or something of the sort. Increasing numbers of people more generally from a specific segment of the population then have a greater influence on the change you seek to make. Thus, if ‘more people’ are involved, the change you seek to make will happen.
So figure out if you will be taking a ‘key people’ approach, a ‘more people’ approach, or both. Then identify who specifically you intend to engage with for each purpose (i.e., changing a specific structure/policy, influencing a specific cultural belief, etc.). If it is ‘key people,’ you can be specific about which type of people you are talking about. If it is ‘more people,’ you can describe the sub-segment of the population you will focus on. Describe in 2–3 sentences.
Workshop 7: Describe learning or personal changes needed for influencers
So now think about each of the ‘key people’ and/or ‘more people’ categories you have mapped out. Hopefully, there shouldn’t be too many of them. If you have quite a lot, try to focus on three for now. And depending on the complexity of your efforts moving forward, you can expand to more later.
For each of these, you will now identify key changes in knowledge, skills, attitudes, perceptions, motivation, or awareness, or more likely, a combination of a few of these. Think specifically about each group you have identified, then consider what they need to be able to make the next level of change you’ve identified. They may have high motivation, for example, but lack particular knowledge and skills. They may be in a particularly influential place and have a high degree of skills, for example, but their attitudes, perceptions, and awareness of something specific may be off. So a change in these will contribute to them taking the action that will influence higher-level change.
Once you map the learning and/or changes needed amongst identified influencers, we talk about more concrete actions and activities that will influence these changes. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and start thinking about what training we’ll do or what advocacy effort we’ll plan. Map out the learning/change first!
Say you have three particular categories of specific ‘key people’ and/or ‘more people.’ For each of these, you can list some of the personal learning and/or changes needed. 1–3 sentences on each will do.
Step 8: Deliberate on tactics
Here is where you map the actions you will take and activities you will conduct to produce the desired learning or changes amongst identified influencers. The possibilities here are endless, and you have likely put together an extensive collection of actions and activities you could potentially engage in.
You may have some ideas already, but try to be creative. Come up with some new ideas. It may help to take a look at my post on 198 Actions for Peace to generate creative ideas. I recommend making a long list of strategies, then narrowing the list down to those activities that you strake a good balance between the most feasible and the highest impact.
Also, don’t consider how you will carry out these activities. Just map the activities you think will have the greatest impact, then figure out how to do it later. If you have a solid strategy, it is often not difficult to find others to support you to carry out whatever you can’t do yourself.
Map it out and write it down. A list will do.
OPTIONAL BONUS: Draft a theory of change
It is often useful to write up a concise summary of the strategic plan. In the peacebuilding NGO world, we call this a ‘theory of change.’ The idea is that what you’ve developed in this process is ‘a theory of how you will make a change’ (i.e., a theory of change). And when we take action, this theory will be tested (i.e., either we will see this change happen or won’t).
This whole ‘theory of change’ thing can often get a bit technical, but it is simple at the core. You basically say, “If we do this, then this will happen, and this is because ….”
If you find this part hard, think of it as you would describe what you’re doing and how it will make change to a friend.
Below is a brief overview of the idea. What you’ll do is fill in the blanks, maintaining only the ‘if,’ the ‘then,’ and the ‘because.’ The more simple and straightforward it is, the better. When you read it through, it should make logical sense.
IF… we conduct this planned activity… with these people…
THEN… we expect to see this type of change…
BECAUSE… we think the change will happen for this reason…
Step 9: Map the resources needed to carry out your planned activities
Now map out what resources are needed to take action on these strategies. By resources, I mean the following:
o Human resources: How many people are needed to take action on your strategies? Where will they come from? Do they need any specific skills? What will they do? What time commitment will be required of them?
o Financial resources: What costs are involved in carrying out the activities? Who amongst your group, your networks, and partners can cover these costs?
o Facilities and equipment: Where will activities be conducted? Is there any equipment needed (i.e., cameras, computers, transportation, etc.)?
If you don’t have all these resources, don’t worry. We’ll sort that out in the final step.
Step 10: Mobilize your networks and take action
Now that you have a solid master plan, you may have insight into many ways to make strategic change. Likely, this is more than you can handle. You’ll want to be focusing on what you’re good at, where your skills lie, where you have a unique potential to make change.
You may then identify many other strategies that can run in parallel with what you do that will also contribute to making the change you seek. Here is where I recommend building coalitions with like-minded individuals and groups to take simultaneous action across a broad range of strategies that work towards shared goals. Many hands working together can be powerful.
Who else is interested in the problem? Who else may be affected by the problem? What other projects address the problem? Identify your allies and forge alliances. Often the most unconventional alliances prove to be the most powerful. If your group doesn’t have the financial or human resources to carry out desired activities, reach out into your networks to mobilize support.
Coordinate your strategy with others. Discuss synergies between your strategy and theirs. Work together. Support each other.
You’re ready to take action on your strategy.
What I hope we’ve achieved here is not only that you have a good strategy, but that you feel confident in your ability to make real, lasting change on whatever issue you care deeply about, and that you go out and make that change. You’ll know that you’re not wasting your money or time, and you can be content to know that what you’re doing is making a difference. You’ll be able to explain clearly how your actions translate to tangible change. You’ll be more creative in your approaches to make change, and this will advance your cause.
On top of all this, you will have learned something new: the skill of strategic peacebuilding. You’ll be able to replicate this strategic peacebuilding process in the future to develop other strategies for change, and you can support others to do the same.
Thank you for joining in this process with me. May your efforts being about a more peaceful and just world that everyone can enjoy!
Download my free Peacebuilding Strategic Planning Worksheet that accompanies the process laid out in this blog post.