How to Set Goals for Policy Advocacy

Setting goals for policy change may be one of the most difficult parts of working in an advocacy organization. If you’re like many policy, advocacy, or organizing professionals, you can probably rattle off a list of things you want policymakers to do. You also know full well that a bevy of interest groups, resource limitations (internal and external), procedural hurdles, and often just plain personalities and relationships stand in the way of getting what you want. Faced with this, some managers simply throw up their hands and give up on goals altogether, trusting their instincts and judgement to make an impact. Many of us still wade into the murky process of goal setting, but risk tripping over common pitfalls.

On one hand, it can be tempting, despite obvious political challenges, to name the ideal policy goal as the key metric for the year. For example, institute a national carbon trading market during the next Congress. Ambitious, yes, but not likely to happen with a Republican held Senate. However, the goal suffers from a second flaw that further elucidates the challenges of advocacy goal setting. Even if Congress did pass a new carbon trading system, no single organization would be solely responsible for it. It would take months or years of advocacy with hundreds of organizations, and thousands of individual actors involved in some way to create a change of that magnitude. Claiming credit for the whole thing would be beyond any individual, campaign or organization. 

A common response to this dilemma is to retreat to identifying a series of activities or products that seem likely to contribute to the desired outcome. For example, releasing a defined number of policy papers or hosting a certain number of Hill briefings with staff members. These may very well be effective advocacy tactics, but they also take the focus off the desired results. That may mean creating pressure to continue pursuing tactics even as a rapidly changing political environment renders them obsolete, or worse, spending months or years releasing useless policy papers or holding irrelevant events. 

Despite the challenges, spending time to identify goals that fall between these two extremes, even if imperfect, pays off for several reasons. Among the most important relates to an underlying assumption that advocacy professionals are in the business of making a difference, so setting goals are a way to identify what they’re trying to achieve and hold themselves accountable to for that impact. Naming what that looks like can be difficult compared to other functions in an organization, such as development (let’s raise 1,000,000 year!), but is no less important. Team conversations about what we can or should be trying to accomplish can surface information about the political environment and make plain strategic assumptions that may or may not hold true. Expending organizational effort to get goals right also sends the message internally that impact is important and expected. 

Finally, although advocacy professionals will often contrast the challenges they face in setting goals with other professions, such as sales, the contrast is often overstated or at least misstated. It’s true that a sales professional may have an easier time putting a single number on their goal for the year: e.g. sell $X worth of product. However, many of the concerns brought up in the advocacy space apply to other professions as well. Similar to politics, other industries are unpredictable. An economic recession, new customer tastes, or rising competitor could all make hitting sales goals much harder than previously planned. The difference between advocacy and sales boils down to measuring success. It’s a lot easier to put a number on selling a certain amount of product than it is for policy impact. Even then, however, the comparison overlooks challenges in sales. Selling $100,000 worth of goods doesn’t always have the same impact for the company’s bottom line. Some products may have higher margins than others. Those may be easier to overcome in sales (e.g. coming up with an estimated profit margin for each product), but no less real. 

Below I want to share some ideas about how to go about setting goals in the advocacy context. Many of these draw from lessons learned my time working for Young Invincibes and as a board member with National Skills Coalition. Particularly with the former, our goals came from a collaborative process so I certainly don’t claim credit for most or all of the following insights. Rather, I put this forward as some ways to think about advocacy goal setting from organizations who do it fairly well. 

What Level of Goal?

Before diving in, it is important to identify the right scale and time-frame for the ideas below. Broadly there are at least three levels of goals we could look at, the last of which I want to focus most on:

  • Visionary Goals: These are multi-year or decades long efforts that focus on a desired social outcome. For instance, cutting the poverty rate in half. They can be powerful external and internal north stars setting the direction for an organization or a whole movement. They are also too big and require too long a time-frame to apply to a particular individual or campaign at the level discussed in this article. 
  • Strategic planning goals: Generally these may tie the visionary goals above with the campaign or near-term goal, often they’re broad efforts set out over a three to five year timeframe for the organization.  
  • Policy campaign goals: this is something you want to see accomplished in the next year or two, and is specific enough that you could fairly track progress against it. 

Setting Policy 

While there are a lot of cases where policy change isn’t going to happen over a short term period, sometimes it can be reasonable to set it as a goal for a particular campaign, or at the level of strategic planning. Often that can be easier to do at the state or local level where there are fewer actors and it is easier to have an influence as one organization compared to the federal level. However, not all policy changes are created equal and they are not ends in themselves. The defining characteristic for measuring policy change should be the impact your organization contributed to in the world. 

Comparing the Scope of Policy Change

One way to measure the impact of a particular policy change is how much of a difference it makes. This can be important in thinking about how to prioritize resources where you can make the biggest difference. The number of people impacted is sometimes a helpful indicator. I.e. the more people affected, the larger the impact. Of course, a large impact on a smaller group of people could make a larger difference than the impact on a smaller group. Thinking about the total level of resources and resources per person impacted and who is impacted can sometimes help decide here as well. E.g. spending an additional $1 billion dollars on financial aid in a state might make a bigger difference for low-income students than spending $100 million simply lowering tuition. Money isn’t everything though. Putting a dollar figure on a law to eliminate racial profiling in policing would miss the point. In general, it can be helpful to consider the size and scope of the people impacted by a policy to get a sense for the size of the change you are looking to make, but understand in some circumstances it will serve as more of a guide for goal setting than a particular metric.

  • An example goal might be: secure $ additional dollars for program Y in this year’s state appropriations process. (In setting the goal for program Y vs. program Z, you might have analyzed the two programs and that program Y does more to help the marginalized communities that are your priority). 

Thinking about your Organization’s Impact

In addition to the scope of the policy change, it’s also important to consider the scope of your organization’s role in setting goals and measuring impact. For example, you may set the goal of a particular policy change and that change did happen, but your organization contributed very little to the effort. If you were one of 30 organizations that signed onto a letter and did nothing else, you probably did not make much of a difference. At Young Invincibles, we developed a system to hold ourselves accountable for our contribution to the policy change effort. The scope of our role in the coalition drove our evaluation. For example, if all we did was publicly support a policy, and nothing else, we’d consider it “signing on the bandwagon”, and would not count towards our total policy victories for the year. If we took a major part, such as organizing the advocacy strategy in the legislature, we would count it as a win, where we were a contributing leader in a coalition. The ladder of victories gave more credit higher up the scale where the scope of our leadership role in the coalition was larger. This allowed us to hold ourselves accountable to actually contributing to change, rather than claiming credit late for things we supported but could not reasonably claim credit. 

When Policy Change Isn’t in the Cards

Sometimes however, you may look out over the policy landscape and realize it’s going to take longer than a year or two to achieve policy change. In these scenarios it can be particularly hard to measure impact short of a changing policy. This is often the case where organizations will fall back to measuring outputs over outcomes. For example, the number of policy papers released vs. policies changed. You still have options to consider that can hold you accountable to something more than producing outputs even if you cannot achieve your objectives in the near term. 

Legislative Milestones

The most straightforward way to measure progress short of full policy change is identifying an intermediate step, such as passing a bill through one legislative chamber or advancing it out of committee. These goals can be tricky as often the politics preventing final passage makes intermediate steps hard as well. Introducing a bill can also be a good intermediate step, although the vast majority of bills don’t go anywhere. Rather than thinking about it as policy progress, you can also think about it as part of the next category – as an expression of support. 

Are Other People Talking About What You Want? 

Even if policymakers are not doing anything, public support for your ideas can count as progress toward ultimate policy change. This can include a bill introduction for the idea you want or signing on as a sponsor of a bill that already exists. Short of that, even a public statement by a policymaker or key partner organization can count as progress. Wherever possible, try to identify who your targets are and hold yourself accountable for achieving support from people that advance your cause. These can be policymakers from a particular party, committee, or caucus, but can also include outside groups you need on board to expand your coalition. 

Look for External Signs of Influence

In addition to soliciting support from other groups, it can be helpful to track how often they are coming to you as a sign of intermediate success.  For example, rather than measuring the number of meetings with policymakers, you can measure how many times a policymaker or their staff calls you for advice on a particular issue. It is a sign that other actors see you as credible and influential, attributes you will need to eventually change policy. This can work for several different audiences including reporters calling you for interviews, partners calling for advice, or invitations to speak at a conference. 

  • For example you might structure a goal like this: Over the course of the year, we’ll establish ourselves as the go-to experts on __ issue. We’ll know we’re there when we receive 10 calls from policymakers, partners, or media asking about the topic, or inviting us to join an event or conference to speak about it. 

Align Your Outputs with Strategy

For all of these options, and particularly in cases where you need to revert to using activities like events or paper releases as goals, it is important to direct your energies toward a strategic audience. This forces you to align your intermediate objectives with your campaign strategy, keeping in mind your identified targets as you go about executing the activities. In traditional media or digital communications the temptation is to simply measure the number of media hits or followers. Sometimes that is important, though there are a lot of things you can do to drive media coverage or social engagement that do not help the cause, and can frequently impede your progress. Naming the target driving the policy strategy and counting activities that reach the target can be a good way to measure engagement that matters.

  • For our communications example, it might look like this: 5 op-eds published in local papers of any of our tier one legislative targets. 

Key Takeaways

There’s no need to throw up your hands when setting goals in the advocacy context. On discrete issues and depending on the environment that you’re working in, you can set goals for policy change a year or two away. If you take this route, make sure you’re holding your organization accountable for a real contribution. It’s also good to keep in mind the scale of the impact you’re shooting for such as the number of people impacted and the amount of resources at stake. If policy change isn’t in the cards, think about intermediate steps to get there, or measure your influence through how often other actors come to you on the issue. If nothing else, make sure your activities are at least directed at the people you want to receive your message.