Creating a Strategic Plan to Win Marriage Equality: A Freedom to Marry Guide

In 2007, John Newsome teamed up with Freedom to Marry founder Evan Wolfson and colleague Roey Thorpe to develop a guide for civil rights leaders: “Creating a Strategic Plan to Win Marriage Equality: A Freedom to Marry Guide”

“Creating a Strategic Plan to Win Marriage Equality:  A Freedom to Marry Guide”



This document is designed to help you create a plan for how your state will achieve full marriage equality.  Every state can and should have such a plan, whether you are within months or a year of achieving this goal, or that goal is ten to fifteen years in the future.

We have drawn from the fundamentals of more general strategic planning and applied them specifically to the issue of marriage equality.  You may be able to apply the planning principles described in this document to help you with broader strategic planning for your organization as well.

What does “marriage plan” mean and why do you need one?

Your marriage plan is a type of strategic plan.  A strategic plan is a detailed roadmap for achieving the organization’s goals, usually for the next 3-5 years, even if the final goal is further in the future.  It is composed of clearly articulated priorities, goals, and targets; programmatic activities to achieve those priorities, goals, and targets, and a thorough description of “what it will take” operationally to achieve the former – staff and skills over time, systems, finances (revenues and costs), and culture.


LGBT organizations need strategic marriage plans because:

  • Putting forward an inspirational vision and how to achieve it helps us mobilize people, raise and deploy resources, and win.

  • We have especially scarce resources, and planning allows us to make the most of our resources, prioritize, and make coherent appeals for additional resources.  Strategic planning also allows us to identify our own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of our peer organizations, enabling us to avoid duplication and collaborate where appropriate.

  • We face competing and urgent priorities, and failure is exceedingly costly, since human rights are on the line.  People are counting on our organizations to address far more than we can actually take on.  The planning process can help figure out what is possible, allow organizations to set priorities and articulate those to our constituencies, and spur good dialogue within the community about what our collective work ought to be.  In our communities, taking on the fight for marriage can be controversial, and how we do it is also contentious.  Some people believe it is an impossible goal.  Breaking that larger goal down into pieces that are doable and successes that are measurable can make the overall goal more evidently attainable.

  • Our environment is constantly changing.  While this is an excuse that many organizations use to avoid planning, a dynamic environment creates an even greater need to plan.  And it’s hard to identify an issue that is more dynamic and in play than marriage equality!  Without a solid plan, it’s too easy to become reactive rather than proactive, to miss opportunities that may help in the future because that future has not been thought through, and to be unable to describe to supporters (as well as funders) what the organization actually does.  Plans can be changed, but it’s impossible to go back in time and create a plan when one would have been critical to success!

  • Funders, both institutional and individual, have expressed concern about the effectiveness of the programs and management of LGBT organizations, and about the lack of planning being done.  This has certainly been the concern of the Civil Marriage Collaborative.  Most of the leaders in our movement have had little training in organizational management, and have learned the hard way how to demonstrate organizational stability in ways that funders traditionally look for.  Planning is one of the hallmarks of a strong and efficient organization.


What if your state is many years away from marriage equality?

Every state can and should have a plan to achieve marriage equality, no matter how far away the goal is.  The key is to think in three to five year increments, working backward from the end point.  For instance, if you believe that your state can achieve marriage equality in twelve years, your plan will be segmented into three parts, each describing strategy for three to five years.  If your end goal is marriage equality, you must determine the most likely route(s) to achieving this plan.  There are only a few major roads to achieving this goal:  legislation, court decision, or, in some states, ballot measure.  Shaping public opinion through public education, organizing, and ally enlistment is a key component in all of these strategies.  (These options are discussed below in greater detail.)  Choose one or more of these routes, then ask yourself: if we believe our state legislature will pass a bill in 2018, what do we need to do that?  A majority of legislators to vote our way and a governor who will sign the bill are two examples.  What needs to happen to get there, and how will you do it?  Laying out detailed answers to these questions and what it will take to get there are the elements of your plan.


For those who live in the most difficult states, marriage equality will be achieved only by national action, either by Congress or the Supreme Court.  Freedom to Marry recognizes that this is the case for many states, but that doesn’t mean that your marriage work in your state isn’t important.  In fact, public opinion in every state is critical to a national victory, and showing movement in our direction in your state will be critical to setting the stage for either a court or a legislative mandate on the national level.  In this case, your end goal for 15 years from now might be a percentage shift in public opinion, or it might be the goal of having all or a majority of the Congressional representatives from your state be supportive of marriage equality.  States achieving these goals are crucial if a national victory is to occur and the “2020 Vision” is to be achieved (see, or contact Evan Wolfson at / 212-851-8418, for more about this national vision for winning marriage equality).


Work toward marriage may also include work on other LGBT equality issues, such as non-discrimination laws, non-marriage forms of family recognition, hate crimes, youth issues, and so on.  This work may be a valid part of your marriage plan, but you must show as concretely as possible how it is connected to achieving marriage equality and how it is integrated into this plan.  For instance, you may have noted that not only are key legislators in your state anti-marriage equality, but they may espouse erroneous beliefs about the safety of children in LGBT-headed households.  Using a non-discrimination bill or local domestic partnership ordinance or policy to educate these legislators about LGBT people and our families may set the stage for a discussion about marriage equality, and you might show that your lobbying training will teach volunteers to talk about marriage issues even if they are not part of your immediate legislative agenda.



LGBT funders and organizational leaders on the importance of planning:

“I’ve always been told that a goal without a plan is just a wish.  Besides that, good plans demonstrate competence and, in the end, that is what we seek to fund.”

— Patrick Flaherty, Deputy National Director, Gill Foundation


“A solid and compelling marriage plan helps funders understand the thinking behind an organization’s hopes for policy change. It allows donors to know where to invest larger amounts of money over longer periods of time.”

— Tim Sweeney, Program Director, Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund


“In the LGBT movement, an organization without a strong plan is certain to waste time and money in constant and ineffectual crisis management.  At the South Carolina Equality Coalition our successes have come only through investing in crafting a plan and having the discipline to stick to it.  The survival of our organization and the movement at large depends on it.  As an executive director, my biggest nightmare is trying to lead a statewide group without a plan.”

— Michael Drennan, Executive Director, South Carolina Equality Coalition


“We can’t persuade non-gay people to care about ending marriage discrimination if we begin by saying we don’t care.  We can’t most effectively get people to commit to the work, marshal resources, and engage in strategic action if we don’t show them where we’re going and the steps to get there.  A vision inspires people to believe and rise to the opportunity and challenges at hand, and a plan helps us make the best use of the people and resources we have on hand, and recruit new ones, to build toward victory.”

— Evan Wolfson, Executive Director, Freedom to Marry


“Organizational planning has been an essential element of our work for marriage equality in Connecticut. Having a plan on paper doesn’t mean it’s written in stone; in fact, in this quickly-changing environment, our plan is continually being revised. But putting a vision on paper has forced our organization to make sure that all our programs and efforts work in coordination with each other to make the whole more than the sum of its parts, rather than having those parts competing with each other.      — Anne Stanback, Executive Director, Love Makes A Family



Getting Started

Who should be part of creating the plan?

This will vary depending on the organization.  Remember that not everyone needs to be part of every stage of the process.  Some people may help generate ideas to go into a plan, others may write the plan, and still others may give you feedback on the plan once it is in draft form.  Trying to include everyone in multiple stages can be so process-heavy that nothing can get done.


We recommend that the Executive Director, if the organization has one, provide direction and leadership through the process, and make sure the agreed-upon strategy is implemented.  It is likely that other staff will provide assistance depending on their area of expertise.  For instance, program staff may give input into program goals, and administrative staff may help prepare financial projections for the plan.  External experts and stakeholders also can, and probably should, be used to provide data and feedback, as appropriate.  (This is especially true, as ideally your marriage plan will not solely concern your organization, but a broader group of LGBT and ally organizations whom you help convene as a team sharing ownership and responsibility for winning marriage in your state).  Board members should be expected to provide feedback on the plan and commit to help with implementation (e.g., raising funds)


Outside facilitator(s), if you can afford them or know someone who will donate their time, can sometimes be helpful in framing the process, gathering and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and generally keeping the project on track.  If creating a plan is new to you, keeping the planning process on track without some form of outside support can be a challenge.  Many people who volunteer for non-profit organizations work in a corporate environment, and these people are often familiar with organizational planning.


In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to include other members of the community in some parts of this process.  For instance, you might want to hold a community forum or do an electronic survey to garner ideas early in the process.  Should you choose to do this type of more inclusive activity, be very clear that what people are doing is giving input into the process, but that decisions will be made by the organization as to what gets included in the final plan.  And remember that not everyone in the community will necessarily agree on your plan—you will need to sell that plan and the reasons for the decisions you made, and convince people that the priorities of the organization are the right ones for this point in time.


Finally, there are people outside the state whom you might consult and enlist, including veteran advocates from Freedom to Marry and other national groups who have led the way on specific methodologies and battles (i.e., the national legal groups such as ACLU, GLAD, Lambda Legal, and NCLR; field/legislative/electoral leaders such as HRC and NGLTF; media experts such as GLAAD, etc.).  You might also consult the Equality Federation’s new Advocacy Services program, which has been created to help states develop and implement strategic plans.


Using a Decision Tree

One tool that could be very helpful is called a “decision tree.”  A decision tree is a type of timeline that shows how various outcomes would change your overall plan (similar to a flow chart that you might have created in science class).  You start with an action that might occur, and then you chart the possible outcomes and the actions that these outcomes would cause you to take.  For example, let’s say that you are planning to pursue a litigation strategy to gain marriage equality.  You might chart the most likely possible decisions the court could make: (1) decide in our favor outright; (2) ask that the legislature pass a law, leaving open the question of civil unions; (3) decide against us. Each of these decisions would lead to a separate set of actions on the part of your organization, and each of these might lead to others.  For instance, if the court pushes the decision to the legislature, you might need to do a series of meetings with legislators specifically to educate them about why civil unions are not full equality.  You might need to do that with LGBT community leaders and other non-gay stakeholders as well. But if the court decides in your favor, your actions might be quite different.


You can also use a decision-tree in the other direction, i.e., if you want to get to the point where you have a legislature and governor ready to pass and sign a marriage bill by X year, with a public opinion climate that would embolden them or at least permit them to do so, what do you need to do year by year, and aspect by aspect, to get that in place by X?


Charting this out can be a very useful visual exercise, and can also help you decide between strategies.  In addition, it can make you aware of what activities are necessary regardless of your strategy or the near-term outcomes (public education, for example), and it can also help you understand problems with the timeline of your plan (for instance, you might want to avoid a court case that is likely to be decided during campaign season if you’re thinking that the court might ask the legislature to make a decision).


Elements of a Marriage Plan

While every marriage plan is different, depending on the organization and the scope of the plan, there are some key elements that go into most plans, which are described below.   Not only can you include additional elements in your plan, but you can also attach supporting documents as you see fit.


Regardless of the length of the entire plan, it will be most detailed for the first three to five years, because that will determine your work planning and organizational development for the short term.  Later segments, if your plan is longer, can describe your goals and strategy in broader strokes, as long as it is clear how your current work is laying the groundwork for success on these future goals.


  1. State Your Goal. You will need to decide what your “big picture” strategy is for achieving marriage equality, and what the goal is associated with it.  There are three major routes to legal change (and you may decide to use more than one):

1.  The legislature can pass a law creating marriage equality.

2. A court can rule that marriage must be opened up to same-sex couples.

3. In some states, a ballot measure can be passed by voters, creating marriage equality in that state (or a bad one has to be undone, whether  by a subsequent ballot measure, a court decision striking down or limiting the measure, or outside action, perhaps federal).

In most states, a public education campaign will be the centerpiece of marriage equality work, with a blend of organizing, ally enlistment and mobilization, and messaging to shape public opinion, and some type of public education campaign is critical to success in any of the routes to legal change.  If you start with these three routes, discuss how each could play out in your state, and then decide which is most likely to succeed and when, you have the beginnings of a plan.


Your goal is related to your major strategy.  For instance, if you choose a legislative strategy, your goal is probably something like “Pass a law in our state legislature ending the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage.”


Later, we include lists of specific questions to answer to guide you through each of the major strategy options.


  1.  Strategies and activities for reaching your goal.  Your plan should focus on those activities that support each of your longer-term goals.  Activities that do not clearly support your longer-term goals may be extraneous and may need to be reprioritized, if they are undertaken at all.  For each aspect of your work, you will want to work backwards from the end sought through the steps needed to achieve it.  In your public education plan, for example, if you have decided you need to shift public opinion by a certain amount, or in a particular area, you might begin by saying “by airing x commercials and a related speakers bureau series, we will reach x,xxx households and boost public opinion from 50% to 52% in 2007, 55% in 2008, and 60% by 2009.”  (Note: there should be some proven or plausible relationship between the activities you’ve chosen, and the changes you foresee; for instance, if a run of TV commercials like yours has been shown previously to move opinion polls by 3%, you’re in business; if not, then get expert feedback, and maybe test out your results.  If the activities don’t achieve the targets, reconsider the activities, the targets, or both).  In this example, you would also need to discuss such steps as polling and message development, analysis of the most effective means of message delivery (i.e., what you will do to get your message across enough), and how it relates to the route your have chosen for legal change.



Real Life Example:  Empire State Pride Agenda

Empire State Pride Agenda has created a Marriage Victory Plan for New York State.  When their court strategy failed, they were ready with a legislative strategy that was announced immediately after the court decision and used the outrage that people felt over the court decision to galvanize public support and create instant, indeed, heightened, momentum.  They need to convince a majority of legislators to vote for a marriage equality bill, and they believe the way to do this is to pressure legislators from every possible angle. With this in mind, they have divided their work into three major categories: public education, grassroots organizing, and governmental advocacy.  Each category has a specific goal (for instance, the goal of the public education campaign is “to create a ‘buzz’ for policy and decision makers on the freedom to marry that exposes them to positive messages from numerous different sources.”  Because they have been clear about these goals—the primary audience is not the general public, but legislators, for example—they can then identify the activities that will help reach this goal.  A few of these are:


– Assemble a group of prominent “New Yorkers for the Freedom to Marry” for web site publicity, rallies, press conferences, etc.

– Conduct editorial board meetings in the top 5 geographic target areas

– Conduct New York-specific polling with over-sampling in specific strategic areas

– Create “Profiles of Love” and publicize the stories of loving couples



  1. Context of plan. This is where you describe, for instance, how your marriage plan fits in with your other goals for the organization, and how it fits in with, contributes to, and takes advantage of national work.  Include information about how your plan fits with the work of other progressive organizations and prospective allies with whom you work (or could work) closely, pertinent information about the history and current position of your organization, and the political landscape in your state. Keep it brief and to the point, but make sure that the important background information for understanding the plan is included.  For instance, many state legislatures added pro-marriage equality members in 2006.  If this happened in your state, this is important context that someone who lives in your state might need to understand why your plan focuses on legislative strategy, for example, and why your goal is achievable.  Inspire confidence that it is doable, so as to bring people in.


  1. Staff, systems, and other organization requirements.  Describe the skills, roles, and responsibilities that your organization needs in order to successfully execute the strategies and activities.  Include what you will need with regard to staff hiring and professional development (staff training) over time.  Don’t forget equipment and software needs, including databases and other systems to support volunteer management, voter identification, and fundraising.  Consider your space needs—if success depends on organizational growth, when might you need a larger or differently configured space?   And finally, make sure you are reaching out to, and including, the broadest, strongest, and most diverse team you can achieve.  Is your organization as representative as it can be in your board and staff, and have you thought outside the box, i.e., not just relying on our own communities, but on the other stakeholders who share, or could share, the goal of ending discrimination?  While strengthening your organization and diversifying your team, you should also consider investing other stakeholders in the work at hand through a working group or shared game-plan to bring us to marriage equality.


  1. Budget.  Include revenue and cost projections over the next two to three years, minding the usual rules about funding diversity, increasing individual donor contributions, etc.  This can be revised along with the rest of your plan as needed, but please be realistic about how much support your organization can reasonably expect, and about the speed at which the organization can be expected to grow, which most likely will lead you to scale back your activities, your organization requirements, and perhaps even your goals and targets.  Remember that it is easier to manage a tight budget and figure out how to spend extra money if it suddenly appears than it is to cut a budget if you don’t reach your fundraising goals.


  1. Timeline.  Creating an actual timeline is a valuable exercise and a great touchstone to have once the plan is complete.  Chart your activities on a calendar, and note where the activities supporting each goal either coalesce or collide.  Note, too, where it is apparent that the organization will not be able to complete what is necessary for success due to lack of time, staff, or other resources, which again may require tough decisions about timing, and about your activities, organization requirements, goals, and targets.


Launching and selling your plan

Once your plan is on paper, it is time to launch.  Beginning work toward the goals you have defined is exciting and should give energy to your team.  This is also a great opportunity to inform people, both within and outside the organization, about your plans, to recruit people who are interested in helping, and to garner media attention for your work.  Figure out what makes the most sense for your organization in terms of launching your plan, whether it is an event for key volunteers and decision makers, a press conference, a mailing or email update to your constituents, or something else entirely.


But don’t assume that you will automatically have unquestioning support for your plan—creating a plan means that you are articulating priorities and goals, and by necessity you are also deciding not to do some things, and making other things a lower priority.  This is bound to be controversial, so you will need to “sell” your plan to people.  “Selling” means that you should not hesitate to explain your plan and to share with people how and why you made the decisions you did.  Don’t be affronted by people who question your decisions; rather, use this as an opportunity to educate people about why you think you’ve chosen the right course of action.  Help them see how it is, indeed, attainable.


Real Life Example:  Basic Rights Oregon

After a very disappointing ballot measure loss that resulted in the passage of a constitutional amendment banning marriage for same sex couples in Oregon, the staff and board of Basic Rights Oregon feared that if they did not act quickly to reenergize activists across the state, that they would lose momentum to the forces of cynicism and hopelessness.  With a legislative session about to begin, there was no time to waste.

Less than a month after election day, BRO staff and former campaign staff joined together and went on a statewide tour of 12 cities in 6 days.  In each place they met with local activists, staying overnight in people’s homes and going to community meetings and church services.  They discussed the outcomes of the campaign, but more importantly, focused on what was next, offering multiple ways to stay involved and inviting people to the “Day of Action” they had planned at the state capitol.  When people expressed hopelessness, Basic Rights Oregon was there to lay out not only their goals, but their plan.  Their legislative Day of Action went from 100 people the prior session to nearly 1,000, and for the first time in decades, nondiscrimination and civil union legislation passed in the Oregon Senate.


Details for Major Strategy Choices

The following illustrative notes and questions are the kinds of issues you should think about in deciding which routes or strategies for policy change are best for you, and will help you create action items for whichever you choose.  Many states have more than one of these strategies in play—how they are connected is unique to your state and those connections create their own opportunities and challenges.



  1. How many votes do you need to pass legislation in each house versus how many votes you have now?   What are the strategies you will employ to get there?  This probably includes some combination of electing pro-equality legislators and changing the minds of others.  How will you do this?  Will you need to form a PAC, increase your lobbying numbers, or find other ways to increase your political influence?  Will you need to hire a lobbyist, or additional lobbyists?  Which kind(s) of lobbyists will be most effective – for instance, from a particular party, shared with your allies, or connected to specific legislators such as party leaders?  Using, and controlling, your lobbyist(s) – or those of allies and fellow stakeholders – presents important issues you will want to be prepared for.

  2. You will probably need a coalition of groups to pass such groundbreaking legislation.  Who are the allies that will be the most influential?  Who are some surprising partners you might enlist?  It is never too early to begin this process.  Think carefully about what the strategy of your opponents might be.  We have already seen religious conservatives try to drive wedges in communities of color and faith communities.  Who are the groups that best represent these communities and what can you do now to build relationships and shore up their support?  This might include helping them with issues that they are working on now, so that they will help you later.  How will you educate both your constituents and theirs about your alliance?  (Note: Though enlisting allies and building a coalition are raised here in the context of legislative strategy, these are, of course, crucial elements of pretty much any plan you’d have for your organization’s work.  It is important not to reduce your entire overall campaign to simply what is done or needed legislatively.).

  3. You will want to work on drafting the legislation and deciding who the sponsors of the bill will be.  There are numerous strategy decisions to be made, and one key decision for you in the planning stage is to figure out who will determine this strategy.  Should you set up an advisory committee and if so, who should serve on it?  Will your board make these decisions, and if so, are there people you should be recruiting for your board?   Beyond questions of process, choosing and working with legislative sponsors, as well as openly gay legislators and others with their own agendas or multiple hats, raise a variety of challenges that you will want to be prepared for.  Likewise, you will want to be prepared with various amendment and language strategies in addition to having your strongest possible basic bill, perhaps modeled after California’s or some other state’s.  (Some sample amendments we can talk about include the “sunrise provision,” the commission model, and religious protection language).

  4. Once you have introduced the bill, one scenario that is very likely to arise is the issue of a so-called “compromise” for civil unions.  See the box below for a discussion of this issue.  It makes good sense to make decisions ahead of time about how you will handle this issue so that your key organizational players are all on the same page, including your lobbyist.  If you are on a one to three year plan for passing a marriage bill, you’ll be best served by building a decision about this into your plan.

  5. Will passage of a marriage bill trigger a ballot measure to repeal it?  In some states, this is a possibility.  If so, you will need to plan for this as well.


More on Legislative Strategy: Dealing with the Civil Unions “Compromise”

One of the issues that many state organizations with a legislative strategy are encountering is what to do about civil unions or incremental partnership measures..  While civil unions are not true equality, many people in our communities and in progressive politics would settle for them as an end goal and do not support the larger marriage equality struggle.  Others see them as an important step forward, which they certainly are in some contexts.  But increasingly, civil unions are offered by legislators who want to avoid the controversial question of marriage equality, which means that we are faced with a strategy question about what to do when our “allies” offer civil unions as a “compromise.”  (Obviously, if your state already has civil unions legislation, this does not apply to you.)


It is absolutely critical for your organization to decide in advance how you will deal with this situation when it arises, and how you will talk about civil unions in your work on marriage.  Freedom to Marry strongly recommends that you make it clear that marriage is your goal and that you educate constituents and allies alike about why civil unions still constitute discrimination – and also, may not be the “necessary” intermediate step that some assume it to be.  This is not easy to do, especially given the range of opinion among our communities and allies about this issue.  It requires a high level of leadership and courage to stake out your position and to convince people that you are right rather than to compromise when that path is easier and many will tell you it is more reasonable and attainable.  Don’t give up!  While you may, in the end, have no choice but to accept civil unions or domestic partnership for the time being, there is nothing to be lost and everything to gain by setting the bar where it belongs, at full equality, and refusing to let others define your goals for you.  Even if internally you have decided that will only accept civil unions as a last-resort intermediate step after an all-out campaign for full marriage equality, you must be careful about putting that on the table too soon, for once it’s there, you’re there.


That said, there are times when civil unions or other forms of relationship recognition are a step forward, and when pursuing these options as part of an overall marriage plan, you must work to be the ones framing the issues and keeping the long-term goal of full equality clearly in your messaging.  If, in your estimation, it is a better strategy to take an incremental approach in your state, then we recommend that you are clear and unequivocal in your position that there is no such thing as a compromise when it comes to basic civil rights, and that anything short of full marriage equality is not equal.  And be clear ahead of time how you will frame the debate so that marriage is the goal, and that no one can claim that anything less is equal or acceptable as a public policy goal.  Remember, too, that there is a difference between a so-called “comprehensive” parallel structure such as civil union, and smaller piecemeal gains (generally called partnership or simply addressing certain specific issues such as access to health care, family leave, etc.); you should consider which, if either, puts you in a better place to attain marriage earlier – assuming you embark on either at some point, either in place of, or in tandem with, the all-out marriage campaign.


Real Life Example:  Garden State Equality

When the court strategy in New Jersey resulted in the marriage question going to the legislature to decide, legislators moved quickly to pass a civil unions bill to stop momentum from the more contentious marriage equality debate.

Garden State Equality was faced with a challenge—how do they celebrate the gains that civil unions bring and still keep their activists engaged and motivated toward marriage equality?  Many people in New Jersey are thrilled at having civil unions and it could have been a political plateau rather than a stepping stone, both for allied legislators and for the LGBT community.

They successfully met this challenge through message discipline and repetition.  Over and over they have repeated the message that they will achieve marriage equality in New Jersey “in two years or less.” They have said it at events, press conferences, to legislators, in all of their emails to their list, relentlessly.  They held a series of events across the state celebrating “Civil Unions/Momentum to Marriage Week.”  And doing so has changed the way everyone talks about civil unions.  Now even legislators who voted for civil unions publicly acknowledge that marriage equality is the next step, New Jerseyans have not lowered their expectations, and two years or less seems like a reasonable goal.


Court Strategy

  1. What is the ideal type of case to bring?  What court in your state would be most appropriate and receptive?  What is the likely timeline for a case and for the appeals process?  (We strongly recommend that you work with one of the large legal organizations in our movement on a strategy, and have them advise you as to strategy and what resources you will need.  They are experienced and have a considerable amount of support to offer.  In addition, they can make sure that your case does not conflict with a national strategy, and will instead help it.)

  2. Who will the plaintiffs be?  How many will you need, and what types of support and training will they require?  What kind of campaign can you build around their stories and geographic placement?

  3. Who will develop your legal arguments and represent the plaintiffs?  Will they need to be paid or will they donate their time pro bono?

  4. How does this court strategy parallel or conflict with your other efforts?  For example, you may or may not want to file a lawsuit during a legislative session or campaign season.  More broadly, how will you message and organize so as to make the case most effectively in both forums, how will you do your best to prevent buck-passing between the two branches, and so on?  Have you included in your plan the affirmative work in advance of a court decision and the work that will be needed afterwards in the event of either a victory or a partial-victory (i.e., short of marriage outright) so as to prevail in the legislature?


Freedom to Marry strongly recommends that before embarking on a litigation strategy, you consult, and ideally partner, with one of our movement’s excellent national legal groups, as well as enlisting local talent.  We are also available to brainstorm and help you assess what will work best.


Ballot Measure Campaigns (for those states that have them)

So far, most of the ballot measure campaigns our movement has waged have been defensive.  But a key part of a proactive strategy may include a ballot measure campaign.  This is the case in states where a repeal of a constitutional amendment may be necessary before the legislature can consider a bill, or in states where a successful legislative strategy will mean that our opponents will try to repeal the bill at the ballot.  It is also possible that an organization may decide that the best way to pass marriage legislation is at the ballot, after a large-scale educational campaign increases public support.  A ballot measure campaign is no small undertaking, but may be necessary for lasting victory in some states.

  1. Who will run the campaign?  What organization or coalition of organizations will lead the campaign, and who will make the big decisions, particularly the early decisions?  How will you assure that both the needs of the electoral campaign and the ongoing movement and organizational infrastructure in your state are given their due?

  2. How many votes do you need to win?  What do you estimate the cost of getting enough votes will be?  (You can look at other statewide issue campaigns, as well as statewide candidate races to get an estimate of how much it will cost.)  How long will it take to raise this money and what will you need to do to raise it?

  3. As you get closer to the campaign time, you will need a campaign plan that includes fundraising, field, and media.

  4. What is the best timing for your campaign?  A general election or a primary?  A presidential election year or an off cycle?

  5. How can the campaign be used not only to win, but to build your organization and build a movement in your state?

  6. Can you sustain a loss?  If you don’t win, what will you need to do next and how will you do it?


Other Players

Don’t neglect to think out a strategy vis-a-vis your state attorney general, for instance, or the governor.  Opinions from the AG (or prep work on how the office might approach a particular case or issue, i.e., honoring marriages from other states, or limiting the scope of an anti-gay constitutional amendment), and executive orders from the governor establishing good policy on partner benefits for state employees or acknowledgement of our families can also be important vehicles.  Likewise, there may be other ways of pressing our cause forward, i.e., creations of commissions to hold hearings and issue reports on who our families are in the state, and how the denial of marriage hurts them, creating business roundtables to speak out and/or testify, etc.


Public Education Campaign

While a public education campaign is not a separate path in itself, any of the paths you choose will require a public education campaign of some sort as a key component.  This category, then, should be included in your plans regardless of means you choose.  In states where none of the three above routes to legal change stands much chance of success, a campaign to build public support may be the core of your marriage equality work.

  1. What is your end goal for this campaign, in terms of measurable public support?  This will likely be expressed in the percentage of people moved by your messages to support marriage equality, and the total percentage you are aiming to have as supporters.

  2. Are there particular populations you want to target?  These may be groups based on legislative district, religious faith, age, gender, race, or some other factor(s), or a mix.  It is very important to define your targets, and its connection to the work you are doing, as clearly as possible.

  3. What are the most effective strategies for reaching these groups?  Is it one-on-one conversation, using community groups or churches as conduits, television or radio advertising, newspaper coverage, electronic methods such as email, websites, or blogs, or some other means?

  4. What is the timing of the campaign?  When will it start and end, and are there distinct phases of the campaign?

  5. Who will coordinate this work and make decisions about the campaign, including what the messages will be?

  6. What kind of organizational capacity do you need to pull off an education campaign?  How much will it cost and how will you fund it?  Are there people who will donate their services to develop the campaign or will you need to hire consultants?

  7. What is the relationship between an education campaign and the rest of the work of your organization?

  8. Have you thought beyond your organization to the broader team of allies and other stakeholders who could be brought to the table in shaping and mounting the effort for marriage equality?  Consider creating mechanisms and opportunities for shared leadership early on, so as to broaden this cause beyond just the LGBT groups and tag.  At stake in our fight is, for example, economic justice (hence, appeals to labor, immigrant rights groups, health-care advocates, and professionals, and businesses pursuing diversity are logical); the well-being of children (and thus we can enlist educators, parents, and professionals); the law and equal protection (so we can bring in bar associations and civic groups); values and caring for others as well as respect for people’s diverse religious views (and thus faith-leaders are crucial partners); and our country’s commitment to inclusion and civil and human rights (for which we look to people of color organizations for valued leadership, inspiration, and lessons).  And as we all know, LGBT people are everywhere, and thus we should engage people of color organizations, knowing the overlap among our various communities and needs.   Be creative and reach out.


Note, too: Freedom to Marry strongly believes that at least as important as message is message delivery.  You will want to enlist the right messengers, create an echo-chamber of reinforcing message deliveries, and ensure a drumbeat of message delivery enough times, over enough time, to ensure penetration and move people along.  This is not a one-shot, one-size-fits-all conversation with a magic-bullet message.


Challenges to Your Marriage Plan

You can anticipate that there will be challenges that you will face as part of the planning process or as a result of your plan.  We offer a list of some of these, and some thoughts on each.


  • Some of the work is 501(c)(3) compatible, some isn’t:  One of the problems you may encounter is how to blend the work of several organizational entities with differing tax statuses into one plan.  This is definitely a challenge, and the important thing is that you must keep careful track of the work you are doing and be aware of what work is appropriate and legal for each entity to do.  The Alliance for Justice offers great materials to help you decide this, and you may decide to consult an attorney as well so that you are absolutely clear about what you can and can’t do.  While there is no problem combining the work into a plan, knowing which entities will be responsible for which pieces will allow you to budget for each entity and plan the correct fundraising strategy.  For example, many foundations only fund 501(c)(3) work, and some are not permitted to fund any kind of lobbying, even if it is done under your 501(c)(3) H election within allowable limits.  Make sure you know this before you write your funding proposals!

  • People question your right to set an agenda for the community:  There may be people who, regardless of your plan, question your organization’s role in creating it and making decisions about goals and strategies.  These people made need to be reassured that you are setting goals for your organization, not theirs (if they are affiliated with one), and that they are free to set their own goals as well.  But this is also an opportunity to share with them the process you went through and why you made the decisions you did.  They may not agree, but hopefully they will respect the work you have put into it.  Remember, too, that we will not persuade every last living gay person, nor do we have to.  There are many reachable non-gay people to be reached and mobilized, and that is a primary part of your work.

  • Some allies are afraid of the issue:  Sometimes our elected allies and our coalition partners are afraid that fighting for marriage equality will somehow cause a “backlash” that will hurt the LGBT rights movement or other progressive efforts.  You may need to show them how the movement for marriage equality can actually bring people together across all kinds of divides, and can galvanize people of all faiths and political perspectives because of the focus on freedom and equality.  You may have to refute misconceptions about the politics and successes (i.e., pro-marriage candidates in fact have gotten elected, voters can be reached and are proving more receptive, etc.).  And you must not be afraid to lead.

  • Critics attack who was in on creating the plan or the strategies you have chosen:  Don’t hesitate to explain exactly how the plan was conceived and who was part of creating it.  If you think it is appropriate, give the person the opportunity to give you feedback and listen carefully.  It might be helpful to find ways to solicit input in a broad way, such as an electronic survey so that many different voices of your constituents can be heard.  But remember, not everyone can be pleased all of the time, and there might be people who just aren’t going to be happy with your choices.  Part of leadership is knowing when to keep going in the face of adversity, and you might just have to agree to disagree with the critics.

  • Supporters believe that marriage isn’t an achievable goal:  Most people now agree that the United States will eventually allow same-sex couples to marry.  Some of these people use this as an excuse to not act; they say “Well, this will happen eventually, but it’s too soon right now, you should be more patient and it will happen in time.”  But no major civil rights advance has ever come through people waiting patiently (though, indeed, we must be patient in our persistence).   And demands for equality never seem timely or convenient.  It will be necessary to convince these people that only through our demands and our actions will marriage equality be achieved; it will happen because we make it happen.  And, for that matter, even incremental gains we make along the way are a product of our fighting, not for increments, but for all that we deserve.

  • Donors don’t want to fund marriage equality work:  You may run into a situation where your major donors aren’t interested in helping you with marriage equality work.  You have two choices if you are committed to your plan:  convince your current donors or find new sources of support.  In convincing your current supporters, you might want to use the arguments presented in the next bullet point.  And you might be surprised at the donors, both LGBT and non-LGBT, who step up to fund marriage work when they have not been moved to help in the past.  Marriage equality is an emotional issue that moves many people in ways that other issues don’t.

  • People claim that marriage equality is in conflict with other LGBT equality goals:  There are people who believe that marriage equality is getting too much attention and is taking money and time away from other goals of our movement.  This is a fear with little basis in reality.  Work on marriage equality has brought new foundations and donors to the table and allowed us to discuss LGBT families and relationships in new and deeper ways.  We have made more gains during the “marriage chapters” of our movement than previously, and have momentum.   Most of the arguments against marriage equality are rooted in the same fears, timidity, complacency, and misconceptions that we face in our other work, and countering the myths and stereotypes helps us on all our issues.  And whether they like it or not, marriage equality is on the minds of everyone these days, and it will come up as we do all of our work whether we plan for it or not.  It makes far more sense to be honest about our goal of full equality and to prepare ourselves to discuss this issue, even for those whose priorities lie in other things we rightly fight for.  Marriage is an inescapable part of the discussion and battlefield, no matter what we are talking about or fighting for.



The woman who coined the word “feminism,” Hubertine Auclert was a key figure in the 19th century French movement fighting for women’s right to vote.  She declared, “If you would obtain a right, first you must proclaim it.”  The best way to rally people and marshal resources for our cause is to lay out a vision, show it attainable, and put forward the concrete steps that it will take to get there.  That’s what your state marriage plan is all about.  Your leadership, summoning and projecting the will, enlisting and mobilizing people, and moving forward to build strength and do what needs to be done step by step will move every state ahead in our nationwide struggle to end our exclusion from marriage.  Your plan will attract resources, which in turn will build your capacity and your power.  As you wield that power and get people engaged, you will accrue more power and make more advances – and it all begins with the plan.  Freedom to Marry and others, both LGBT and ally, are available to help you in this important next step.  We are all in this together, and together, we can and will do it. 


Roey Thorpe

John Newsome

Evan Wolfson


March 6, 2007