I’ve just come back from running an advocacy workshop for the Red Cross in Nepal, and I know that I have written about this before, but I am yet further enthused that advocating or campaigning for change is one vital part of our common and shared humanity.
Despite having to rely on translation, the participants in the workshop showed an eagerness to define their key problem and solution, to debate the realities of their own external context, discuss how they might influence their target, analyse the most effective response to opposition, and bring it all together in one strategy.
We may speak different languages and have different cultures, but that common human desire to challenge the status quo and push for change to help other people cuts across our differences and shows our common uniting humanity. All I did was to offer some tools and a framework – they then did the rest to take ownership of their issue and debate how they might go forward to push for change. This gives me such a sense of hope for our world – working together we can make a difference!
I think that it is so important first of all to show as an advocacy campaigner that you are committed to being held to accountable and that you want no special favours.
But you want to work in an environment that encourages responsiveness and innovation and allows you to ride the waves coming towards you.
Part of your coping strategy must be to invest time in educating colleagues in advocacy campaigns and how this discipline does differ to other disciplines as it is so bound up with changes in the outside world.
And linked to that education must be a focus on the theory of change. When I have run advocacy campaigns, I have yearned to be held accountable to my theory of change – let me set out how I think my campaign is going to take off, let me show how it is rooted in the realities of the outside world, let me report on this theory of change, show my progress and my blockages, and allow me then to craft my new theory of change. So that over time you can chart my progress by monitoring the changes in my theory of change. Is that too much to ask?
Another trend that I have observed especially in larger organisations is an increasing bureaucratisation of advocacy campaigns, by which I mean the campaign is almost suffocated by internal requests for plans, updates and monitoring.
Don’t get me wrong; the advocacy campaigner should be alert to his or her accountability and be eager to show the value that investing in advocacy campaigns is making as part of the organisation’s mission. I am not arguing for complete freedom or a lack of accountability.
But my concern focuses on where that desire for accountability and reporting loses all sense of perspective in terms of what is requested. These requests may take the form of excessive reporting formats and monitoring forms, where increasing time can be spent on reporting and not doing. These requests can also be more reactive to external changes; so where an action is not in the plan, a detailed report is requested to justify this new action.
There is a balance to be struck here. Advocacy campaigners need to be held to account. But they also need the freedom of manoeuvre to exploit changes in the external world for the campaign’s advantage.
Again a pressure to bureaucratise an advocacy campaign might suggest a lack of understanding and a nervousness about the activity. If one were to fully embrace advocacy campaigning, one would require a reporting process and a system for agreeing action changes, but these would all be light touch and the expectation would be that the campaign would continue to shift and change tack in response to the outside world. This pressure would again suggest to me that there was a need for more education in the organisation to improve the understanding of campaigning. So how can you cope with this obstacle to campaigning?
It can be very difficult to cope with this ‘marketising’ pressure on your campaign as very often this pressure will come from senior levels of the organisation.
Yet there needs to be a continued focus on what the advocacy campaign is all about; the advocacy campaigner needs to be sensitive of the wider needs of the organisation, but also needs to continually push the point that the focus for the campaign is policy or practice change. I would argue that the ‘marketisation’ of advocacy campaigns is showing that the practice and understanding of advocacy campaigns are not embedded in the organisation and more effort needs to be made to helping to educate colleagues.
The advocacy campaigner could do more to support internal communications, which embrace the whole theory of change not just the high profile impact, by offering to bring supporters along on the whole of the journey and share the whole story with them.
The advocacy campaigner could support work that gives the organisation profile, but in a way that is helpful to the advocacy campaign and consistent with the theory of change. Media coverage can often help an advocacy campaign, but push for it when the issue needs it not just the organisation.
And the advocacy campaigner could make sure that the key people know who was involved in the advocacy campaign. In the past while my organisation’s involvement may not have been always front of mind for the public, the key allies and targets all knew about our involvement.
Some examples of this ‘marketising’ happening are:
An internal pressure for headlines for the organisation irrespective of whether this is helpful for the advocacy campaign. There can be stages of an advocacy campaign where profile is not helpful if the ultimate goal is policy or practice change.
An internal pressure for public credit for the organisation irrespective of whether this is helpful for the advocacy campaign. Very often when you are dealing with a sensitive subject, or a reticent target or a wider group of allies, seeking public recognition for your impact, while desirable to be able to tell supporters, can be detrimental to the overall campaign where your own self interest is being seen to take precedence.
A desire to show impact so that it can be reported back to supporters irrespective of whether this is real impact. So maybe a commitment from governments at an international conference is lauded to supporters but without any real tangible change.
One trend that I have seen in recent years is the deliberate blurring of the distinction between advocacy campaigns and marketing campaigns – what I describe as the ‘marketisation’ of advocacy campaigns.
On one level, this really is not an issue as there is some commonality between these two practices. Both focus on a message and both seek some sort of influence on a target group.
But where this ‘marketisation’ becomes an issue is on the purpose of the activities. As I have presented on this site, advocacy campaigns are all about achieving a tangible policy or practice change to tackle a particular problem with the aim of improving the lives of significant numbers of people. Marketing campaigns are often about raising the profile of the organisation and encouraging the pre-conditions for greater support for the organisation. They are two very different disciplines and a healthy, functioning organisation needs both disciplines; but they are different with their different goals.
It is when marketing objectives erode advocacy campaigns objectives that the advocacy campaigner needs to pay attention. I’ll look in my next post at a few examples of this ‘marketising’ of advocacy campaigns …
Over the next few months I intend to post a series of blogs on the internal obstacles to seeking to campaign from within an organisation. This series of blogs will build on the blog posts that I wrote earlier in the year and will reflect on some of the additional potential blocks that campaigners should be alert to when working in an organisation. Watch out for my first such obstacle: the ‘marketisation’ of campaigns.
Having just launched my introduction to campaigning online course on the Udemy platform last month, I am now working on a comprehensive online campaign training course, which will outline a framework for campaigning to help people develop their own campaign for change – my promotional video for this new course gives you a feel for this new course …..
And secondly, I am fascinated as to the best way to stimulate campaigning around the world. How do you move from a central global plan to real practical campaigning activities in different countries?
For me I am utterly convinced that the critical building block in stimulating global campaigning activity is to ensure in the regions, and in some cases sub-regions, of the world that there are enthusiastic campaign champions who will develop campaign activity in their country to act as beacons for the rest of their region.
I have seen too many attempts from the centre to run campaign training as the key catalyst to spur on such activity. While such training is important, you so need a champion in the workshop from that region, who is already making a go of campaigning in their own national context. If I was looking to develop a truly global campaign, my starting point would be to identify those regional or sub-regional champions across the world. I would then look to support them and to help them kick-start campaigning in their country. Once some momentum was established, working in partnership with them, I would seek to run some form of campaign training workshop. While I may look to supply the campaigning theory and framework, the practical examples would come from the region itself.
I think a combination of clear and simple campaigning tools combined with practical examples (both success and failure) from the target region can be just so powerful. And then having run this workshop, the ongoing campaign support and inspiration needs to come not just from the central campaigns lead but from the regional champion. And these regional campaign champions themselves can form a powerful support network.
Over the years I have slowly come to realise that genuine enthusiasm in campaigning is just such an important ingredient for a successful campaign – never take it for granted. And if you are really looking to run an authentic global campaign, with authentic national expressions, then cherishing and nurturing this enthusiasm around the world is vital.
So in conclusion: I think that global campaigns need a common framework but they need to cherish diversity of expression within that framework, and they need to cherish and nurture enthusiasm around the world.
Over the past few years I have worked with quite a few international NGOs, which have been endeavouring to build a global campaign on their key issue, and I’ve just returned from Rome doing just that, and for me in those discussions two key factors tend to emerge from any such discussions…
Firstly, I have been interested to observe how much time is spent in trying to agree one message that will resonate across the globe, and how difficult such a task can be! I spent months trying to get the Red Cross in Europe to agree on one advocacy message in response to the challenges on migration. In the end it was impossible to agree on one message in this one continent without even trying for a global message.
Based on that experience, and similar experiences, I have come to a much more relaxed view on messaging for global campaigns. I just don’t think you can impose from the centre one message about policy or practice change for the whole world. Well maybe you can, but life is just too short and some of the problems we face are just too urgent.
Instead I am more attracted now to agreeing a menu of key asks, based on a common vision, values or principles, conscious that not all of those asks will be relevant in all countries and that the relevance of the proposed asks will be assessed in each country. I think to develop a common framework that is then applied in a manner consistent with the individual national context is so important. While the campaigns may sound different in each country, there is a common thread based on the overarching goal or principles. I like the idea of global campaign framework working with tailored national campaigns.