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Effective Advocacy: Understand the Issue

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The effective advocacy planning process:

A. Identify, examine, and understand the issue you want to address.
B. Identify the key actors and their roles and build relationships with appropriate actors.
C. Understand the system, what can be influenced, and what the leverage points are.
D. Develop goals and objectives.
E. Develop strategies, tactics, a plan of action, and a plan for evaluation.

The first part of creating an effective advocacy plan is to identify, examine, and understand the issue you want to address.

Reflect on your area of concern and consider the issue that you want to address. Is it a concern about the harmful impacts of our current food system? A need to end child labor? A desire to develop rights-centered economies?

Here are some important steps:

1. Learn about the issue.

Learn more about the issue from credible sources so that you can find out more about the root causes of the problem and determine what specific aspect of the problem you’re going to target first.

You may want to do a literature review (research about what’s already known and what potential gaps exist), do online research, talk to groups and people already working on the problem, interview stakeholders, and use other strategies.

Take time to reflect on questions such as:

  • What is the perceived problem?
  • What are the facets of this problem (e.g., different stakeholders may have different views about what they think the problem is)?
  • Who are the key actors (stakeholders and influencers) involved?
  • Who benefits from this problem?
  • Who has power over this problem?
  • Who is harmed by this problem?
  • Who is largely invisible but is affected by this problem?
  • What are the systemic components of this problem and how do they behave (what influences them)?
  • What are the boundaries of this problem?
  • What forces account for the current system being the way it is (why is this happening)?

You’ll also want to learn from those affected by the issue to get a more complete picture. A too-frequent mistake is for advocates to assume they know what kind of change or action is best without first having consulted those whom the issue impacts.

Take note iconFor certain populations, such as nonhuman animals, some children, and humans with severe cognitive impairments, it may be much more difficult for them to communicate their needs and interests. Consider how you can engage with and advocate for these individuals and populations in ways that honor their needs, desires, and individuality.

Approach this work by starting with principles such as respect for dignity and justice.

2. Do a PESTLE analysis.

To get a better sense of the factors that may influence your chosen problem, you may want to do a PESTLE analysis.

A PESTLE analysis is a tool usually used in business to analyze a variety of factors that may affect whatever product or plan they’re considering.

As an advocate, you can use the PESTLE analysis to consider relevant factors and influences on your chosen problem.

Here’s a brief example using the problem of animal trafficking:

P: PoliticalWhat political factors are influencing your problem?Little political will exists to address the problem in a meaningful way.
Corruption abounds.
Illegal trafficking unbalances national and global security and funds armed conflicts.
E: EconomicWhat are the relevant economic factors or drivers for your problem?Illegal animal trafficking is the fourth largest criminal market in the world.
There is high consumer demand for nonhuman animals and their parts.
Some parts of the world have few economic opportunities.
S: SocialHow are social norms affecting your problem?Nonhuman animals are seen as inferior and something to be used.
Capitalism based on profit at the expense of others is highly valued.
T: TechnologicalWhat technologies are relevant to or are influencing your problem?Social media and other digital technologies make it easier to poach and trade.
More technologies are available to help protect endangered animals (e.g., tech for tracking, identifying provenance).
L: LegalWhat are the current legal factors relevant to your problem?Nonhuman animals are legally property.
Few meaningful animal protection laws exist and they are poorly enforced.
A few countries have expanded legal protections or rights for nonhuman animals.
Trade in animals and their parts is legal in most countries.
Legal loopholes for trafficking exist.
Legal tools such as CITES and the ESA strive to address some instances of protecting threatened nonhuman animals.
E: EnvironmentalWhat are the relevant environmental factors for your problem?Deforestation and other kinds of habitat destruction have made the trafficking and enslavement of nonhuman animals easier.
The trafficking of animals for food creates environmental problems, and it increases the risk for disease transmission.
Poaching and trafficking are upsetting ecological harmony and destroying additional habitat.
Download the PESTLE Analysis chart.

UNICEF has created a useful list of factors to consider for each segment of PESTLE. (See page 9.)

MobLab has a visual Context Map, which is similar to PESTLE, to help you identify the political cultural, social, and other trends affecting your issue of concern. 

3. Conduct a situational assessment.

Another tool to help learn more about an issue is a situational assessment.

A situational assessment is a process for gathering and analyzing data to help inform goals and decisions.

Public Health Ontario gives a brief overview of six steps for a situational assessment related to public health issues.

Here’s a situational assessment from the World Health Organization for reducing crashes related to drinking and driving.

And here’s an example of a situational assessment of acid violence in Uganda.

It may also be helpful to consider Bill Moyer’s Movement Action Plan (MAP) Model for social movements, which may provide insight into how best to engage with your issue given how much public support there may be around your chosen issue and proposed solutions. Here’s an adapted version of Moyers’s model.

Knowing the current circumstances and context for your area of interest and its stakeholders can help you identify useful leverage points, potential targets, key goals, and possible strategies.

4. Find root causes.

In addition to doing research and learning from stakeholders, you may want to use one of a variety of tools to help you identify the root causes of the problem. Root causes are the underlying reasons a problem exists.

Some possible tools to help you find root causes include:

The 5 Whys uses a series of “why” questions to help identify deeper causes.

Problem Tree Analysis uses the visual structure of a tree to identify the effects, consequences, and root causes of a problem.

Problem Diagram helps chart the effects and contributing factors of your problem.

For example, if your chosen area of concern is the fact that our current food system is set up to harm people, animals, and the planet, you may find that some of the root causes include

  • values that put profit before other beings and the planet;
  • a consumerism and convenience mindset;
  • a tendency to use short-term thinking;
  • lack of awareness about the impacts of the current food system;
  • a worldview that sees animals, the environment, and workers as exploitable and less important than other interests; and
  • a lack of political and collective will to transform our current system.


5. Create a problem statement.

You may also want to create a problem statement so that you can clearly communicate with others about your work. Your problem statement might outline

  • who and what are affected by the problem;
  • what the boundaries of the problem are;
  • what contributes to the problem; and
  • what the root causes of the problem are.

See page 63 of the Systems Practice workbook for an example of how to create a simple systemic problem statement.

The Systems Practice workbook includes the following formula:

“We are trying to move from a system that (problem statement) to a system that (what the system looks like when the problem is solved).”

At Phoenix Zones Initiative, our simple systemic problem statement is as follows:

“We are trying to move from a system that exploits human and nonhuman beings and the planet to a system that enables people, animals, and the planet to thrive.”


Problem Identification” by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Systems Change: A Guide to What It Is and How to Do It by NPC
Systems Practice by The Omidyar Group

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