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Last week, a keynote presentation I gave at a University of Western Ontario conference about agriculture and the Great Lakes gave me a chance to feature 20 pivotal lessons that friends and colleagues have taught me over my 50-year career as an advocate and organizer.
The one that seemed to stand out most for this diverse crowd of academics, farmers and activists was the way I was taught to reframe questions so that food could be repositioned and reconsidered by institutional leaders.

I learned this lesson when a leading foundation asked me to review the effectiveness of a Campus Food Systems Project designed to bring more local and sustainable food to several university campuses across Canada.

I started working up a laundry list of all the things universities could do on behalf of local and sustainable food when my two advisors — Sarah Archibald, then of Sierra Youth Coalition and Caitlin Colson, then of Meal Exchange — interrupted me to say that was the wrong way to start.  First we have to ask what local and sustainable food can do for universities, they said. After that, we can ask what universities can do for local food.

Within a day, I cooked up a list of over 20 benefits that would come to a university if it provided higher-quality, more local and sustainable food. The university would gain new allies within the local farm community and local food industry; it would enjoy positive “earned media” that would spread their reputation as a positive force in the community; it would provide more part-time jobs for students; it could offer more interesting experiential learning opportunities for classroom tours; it would fulfill pledges the university had made on sustainability; and so on.

Like most people, I was already aware of the power of asking the right question. A question well-asked is a question half answered, is a saying I grew up with. The great Albert Einstein once said that if he only had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes getting the question right, so he could solve it in less than 5 minutes.

But the particular formulation I learned from Sarah and Caitlin gave me a whole new sense of how to reframe opportunities, and how to do advocacy. The other shoe dropped.

It amazed me how easy it was to shift from asking what an institution could do to do the right thing by food, to what an institution could do for itself if it had a more dynamic appreciation of food. By rephrasing the question, we made the institution co-leader and a co-beneficiary of the right answer.

Learning how to ask questions led me to ask another question: why doesn’t this new way of opening conversations and negotiations with institutional leaders happen more often?

I think the answer is that most advocates are still in the headspace corporations used to be in, before the 1950s. The old way a business did sales was to convince people why they should buy a particular product. But the new post-1950s way was to market, not sell. That changed market from a noun to an action verb.

The idea was to shift retailing away from selling a product the company wanted to sell, and toward  selling a product the customer already needed, and possible wanted. Focus on the benefit to the customer, not the need of the company; stop selling, start marketing, the new thinking went. If there’s resistance, don’t move to the hard sell; promote more benefits the product can provide or link to.

Sell the benefits, not the product qualities, was the new watchword. Don’t advertise the product as made of stainless steel; advertise that it’s easy to clean and will last a lifetime.

This was a game-changer for business thinking some 60 years ago. Shifting to a marketing perspective will be just as transformative for advocacy organizations today.

As of now, very few people in the sustainability and food worlds have caught up with the capitalists of the 1950s. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Steven Peck of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities come to my mind as exceptions – people who promote pollution-free energy as energy efficiency, as Lovins does, or who promote green infrastructure as profitable and beautiful job creation, as Peck does.

For the most part, movement people are satisfied with pushing companies and governments to adopt a project because it’s the right thing to do for health and the environment. They see themselves as pressure groups, lobby groups, or advocacy groups, not innovators promoting better ways of increasing opportunities for mutual benefit.

Increasing pressure is what today’s advocacy organizations know. Reducing resistance is not part of their thinking. My longtime friend, Jim Harris, used to liken such green strategies to people who called on all their big strapping friends to help push a car, instead of checking first to see if they could release the emergency brake on the car.

It’s time for advocacy movements to consider the benefits of shifting their questions and checking into the possibilities of releasing the brakes.


Three things happen when we shift our emphasis to highlighting the benefits of change:

First, we’re no longer defined by the public as opposing something conventional, but as proposing something new. The emphasis in the image others have of us goes from being “critics” and “negative” and “naysayers,” to being “innovators” and “positive” and “entrepreneurial.” We go from being attackers to helpers. We get to call ourselves Solutionaries.

The late Jack Layton, who worked with me to develop the Coalition for a Green Economic Recovery during the 1990s, described his change of thinking along these lines as going “from opposition to proposition.”

Benefit 1: when we change our own self-definition, we also change our public image.

Benefit 2: we have a better chance of getting our issue on the radar of the organization we want to change if we talk about the benefits of change. If we harp on the dangers of not changing, they just get defensive and move into counter-attack mode.
Thinking about getting on the radar, I always found, was especially important for food advocates, because food is extremely difficult to get on the radar of government officials. That’s because few government officials even agree that food is part of their jurisdiction or responsibility. And as often as not, they’re right, certainly in the case of city governments, which rarely have much responsibility or funding for food. It is just as hard to get on the radar of business leaders, most of whom already have their hands full meeting changes required by their marketplace competitors.
Unless there is mass and continuous resistance to a product or project, which is seldom the case, most government or business leaders will only give a hearing to alternatives if they see them as being beneficial to them.
When we reframe the question to consider what those benefits might be, we have the information needed to have the general public think we should be on the radar, and to have government and business leaders agree we need to be on their radar.  Our issues might not be the responsibility or duty of a particular company or government department, but if changes are deemed beneficial, they’re more likely to be considered.
That change in thinking brings a huge benefit to advocates; it certainly makes it easier to convince supporters and donors to stay with the cause.
Benefit 3: flipping the question changes the way the decision is evaluated.
If an action is motivated on the grounds that it’s the right thing to do, then two things have to be evaluated by a government department or company. First, they evaluate if changes would indeed bring benefits to the environment or society – not the easiest thing in the world to prove beyond doubt. The most important thing is — how much do we have to spend to get this change?
Note that the change is evaluated as an expense.
If the change were considered beneficial, it would be deemed an investment – a entirely different way of looking at the same amount of money.
I had a little experience of this shift in thinking when I managed the Toronto Food Policy Council because I was often confronted by people who wondered if the City could really afford us – a bit of a joke, considering that the TFPC costs well below $200,000 a year.  I immediately adapted the line of teachers’ organizations facing critics who think education is too expensive. If you think education is too expensive, the teachers would respond, try ignorance. I did my own version of this verbal turnaround. You shouldn’t look at the Food Policy Council as an expense, I would say. If we create as few as ten businesses that pay city taxes, we will more than cover all our expenses, I would say. You have us in the wrong side of the ledger book; we belong on the revenue generation side, not cost expenditure.
That is the reality of many items proposed by health, environment and equity advocates. They are investments, not expenses. They will add value to society and the environment and they will generate savings  and jobs.
Why don’t we say it!
When we flip the question – from what can the university/city/company/hospital/taxpayer do for food to what can food do for the university/city/company/hospital/taxpayer – we shift the way we think about ourselves, shift our public image, shift the response of the people we advocate to, and shift the way our proposal is evaluated.

I think it would be beneficial to many advocacy organizations to consider this.