It’s not always easy to convince people that they should care about other people’s problems — everyone faces their own challenges, and worrying about others instead can seem like a distant priority. The Institute for Justice (IJ), an Atlas Network partner based in Arlington, Va., decided that in order to succeed in its work as a public interest law firm protecting individual rights, it would need to tell compelling stories about individuals who highlight the personal nature of the struggle for fundamental freedoms to live, work, and own property. That approach has helped IJ shift public opinion on a number of issues, but the organization soon realized that in order to communicate effectively just how universally representative those personal struggles truly were, it needed to bolster each story with a robust foundation of data-driven social science research.
IJ officially launched its Strategic Research Program in 2006, 15 years after the organization’s founding. This new emphasis on authoritative analysis helped demonstrate the entrenched and pervasive ways in which governments violate individual rights. IJ’s Strategic Research Program is featured in one of Atlas Network’s new Think Tank Impact case studies, a publication series that breaks down the details of successful projects from partner organizations. Each case study shows, step by step, how partner projects were accomplished and how the lessons they provide can be applied to other countries and communities around the world.
The IJ case study explains how the organization first developed its research capacity a few years earlier, as a precursor to the full program, by gathering data about every case of the use or threat of eminent domain property takings to facilitate private development, rather than for a public purpose like roads or utilities. IJ documented more than 10,000 such cases in a five-year period, resulting in a landmark 2003 publication, Public Power, Private Gain, which led to a major story on the 60 Minutes television program and an eventual hearing of IJ’s Kelo v. City of New London case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
IJ formalized this analytical effort in its full Strategic Research Program, and brought new rigor to its extensive litigation work. Another significant accomplishment during the subsequent years was its 2010 milestone study Policing for Profit, about civil asset forfeiture. It comprehensively chronicled the routine, nationwide violation of due process rights when police seize the property of people who are merely suspects in criminal cases, without convictions or even charges filed.
By spending years doing the heavy lifting of thorough investigation and data compilation, IJ created a comprehensive resource not only for its own litigation needs, but triggered a wave of coverage from publications like the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the Atlantic, and many more. Ultimately, Policing for Profit inspired a national conversation about civil asset forfeiture, providing investigative journalists with federal case information and data from every state.
“The model of the Strategic Research Program team has proven effective at elevating issues and illustrating key concepts that are relevant to IJ’s litigation efforts,” the case study explains. “By designing research to meet specific communications and litigation goals, without sacrificing quality (research projects are often painstaking and lengthy in duration), the Strategic Research Program team is able to define its framework for making decisions.”
The project examples included in this case study are only a portion of the extensive and ongoing work that IJ’s Strategic Research Program team continues to undertake. Its ongoing success with this research-intensive background as a foundation for telling compelling and personal stories demonstrates how other organizations can enhance their own work with a similar multi-layered approach.
“While only a minority of Atlas Network’s partners employ litigation strategies, IJ’s approach shows how effective it can be to pair personal stories with robust data,” explains Cindy Cerquitella, Atlas Network’s director of training. “Whether your audience is a judge, lawmakers, media, or the general public, a message that resonates both emotionally and empirically is one that is likely to win.”
Want to take a deep dive into the case studies of the Worldwide Freedom Movement?
Atlas Network believes that some of the best lessons for achieving impact are taught by sharing success stories of similar organizations. Over the next several years, we will be producing a series of Case Studies, based on exceptional think tanks within the Atlas Network. The case study above features the work of the Institute for Justice. This and subsequent case studies in the series will provide insight, context, and advice on running effective think tanks. If you would like more in-depth analysis, guidance, and discussion, be sure to participate in Atlas Leadership Academy's Think Tank Impact online course. This course, run quarterly throughout the year, will allow you to learn, share, and address your organization's challenges along with others from the worldwide freedom movement.