Lessons for movement building

Earlier this month I spoke at the City of Sanctuary AGM in Reading; it was great to be there with people from all over the UK part of this growing network of people keen to offer a welcome to refugees in their local area.

Speaking at City of Sanctuary AGM

We’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about social movements and about how what we are doing is part of building a social movement in the UK to welcome refugees. Part of our thinking has been influenced by some of the literature coming out of the US on social movements. At our AGM I sought to set out some of the lessons that we have gleaned from this literature:

  • Be ready to use a ‘scaffold of research’ to show the impact of your movement
  • Recognise the need for scale and have a strategy to scale-up
  • Don’t ever think that you are the movement!
  • Don’t be afraid to confront power
  • Don’t let urgency set your agenda

Great lessons – and ones we’ll be reflecting on in the months to come…

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Importance of story telling

Last week I was invited to attend a workshop at the Sheila McKechnie Foundation as part of their new social change project. What was really interesting about this meeting was the wide array of people that they had invited to this workshop.

Yet there was thing that united all of us at this meeting – we all had a story we wanted to tell about a project or campaign that we had been involved to push for change. It was remarkable when we got talking and sharing to be able to pick up so many lessons taken from all of this work. It showed me yet again that there is such a strong link between campaigners and stories. But these people were not just story telling – they had all played a major and active role in making the story.

I wish this new SMK project all the best – anything that shares ideas, success, failure and general learning about campaigning can only be a good thing to inspire even more campaigning in future!

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Reflections from Geneva

Last week I ran an advocacy campaigns workshop in Geneva. When I run this training I am always interested to observe where I am challenged on certain approaches. As I have delivered this training around the world over the last decade or so, one constant feature has been my pitch that you need a burning desire for change to run an advocacy campaign; I have often said that a mild irritation with the current situation is just not enough to get a campaign up and running.

So I was intrigued when I was challenged last week for the first time ever on this point. I was told that you did not need a ‘burning desire’ to be able to run an advocacy campaign. I was fascinated by this challenge. In my view even when you have that burning desire for change, it can sometimes be really hard to run a campaign, especially if you are in an organisation with all of the obstacles that you may encounter, and without such a desire I can only see that it would be highly difficult to sustain the motivation to drive a campaign forward.

And on that point we agreed: namely, that motivation to run a campaign was important and a vital ingredient for its success. And we agreed to differ on whether that motivation needed to be a ‘burning desire.’ But what do you think? Do you think that you need a burning desire for change to be able to run an advocacy campaign?

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Obstacle 10 – we’re too busy to campaign

I see this so often – we are so busy delivering services meeting the need that we can’t make campaign. So that nothing ever changes, so that you stay busy. I just get excited by those smaller NGOs, which can both deliver services but also embed their campaigning into the soul of their organisation. They do both activities because they know they need to do both – but one fits seamlessly into the other – they see these actions as being on one continuum.

But I have also come across NGOs who are so immersed in their service delivery that they cannot lift their heads up and see a world where their services will not be needed. Indeed they are comfortable delivering these services and managing their lives around these services. They cannot envisage a world where their services are not needed.

I do think that for many NGOs their ultimate purpose should be to do themselves out of work because they are just not needed, and an effective advocacy campaign will be a part of achieving that goal.

I am always wary of the person or organisation, which tell me that they are too busy to campaign – do their service users feel the same way? Being busy should not be a reason not to campaign.

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Obstacle 9 – lack of a common goal

What is the point of your campaigning? Is it policy change? To recruit new  supporters? To raise your profile? To raise money? What is your goal? Effective campaigning needs focus and a clear goal. All good campaigns need these two elements. And this is time well worth spent to be clear about your answer to why you are campaigning. Don’t assume anything – be explicit.

I think that this is such an important point and I will go onto discuss some of the internal pressures on advocacy campaigners in later blogs.

To my mind an effective advocacy campaign needs to be totally focused on the desired policy or practice change. This has to be the primary goal. And there should be no ambiguity about this focus.

I have always been clear that when the goal has been more about attitudinal change or marketing, that is a very different skill and one that I am not qualified or experienced to advise upon.

An effective advocacy campaign, as I have seen from my own experience, can also be highly successful in aiding fundraising attempts and in recruiting new supporters, but again this cannot be the primary goal. As an organisation you all need to be crystal clear – why are we running this advocacy campaign? What is the desired policy or practice change?

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Obstacle 8 – internal disharmony

This is another sad obstacle. Here the team or organisation is undermined by internal conflict. Sadly this can be a problem especially in small NGOs, but it does undermine effective campaigning. Clearly this disharmony needs to be tackled before the campaigning can take off. This disharmony just has to be tackled and not avoided. You just cannot build a successful campaign on such a platform, or if you are able to do so why you adding to your own stress and diverting energy from your campaign?

You do need a united team for effective advocacy campaigns. This has to be the primary goal before you can even consider running an advocacy campaign.

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Reflections from South Africa

I’m just back from 10 days working in South Africa for the Red Cross Society. My brief over the next few months is to support them as they seek to develop advocacy strategies across their provinces and nationally.

I also had the good fortune to be able to visit some of their projects across KwaZulu-Natal and to see the huge difference that they are making for people with HIV/AIDS and TB.

Having gone out there to help them develop advocacy, I was interested to see that they were already doing advocacy – they just weren’t calling it that. One big issue in this province is trying to connect the health professionals with younger people so that they understand each other. As a result of their influencing, the provincial government is now investing in what they call adult youth friendly services – advocacy in action.

I am always interested to see, as I travel around to support the development of advocacy campaigns, how often people are already doing it – see my blog post back in December. I do think that it is so important to de-mystify advocacy campaigning – it is within of reach of anyone who has a burning desire to see change!

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Obstacle 7 – individual agendas taking over

Here campaigning is undermined because individuals have their own agendas and seek opportunities to develop their agendas. This will always be tricky when you are dealing with passionate campaigners, but I think an astute organisation will try to work with those individual passions to energise the wider campaigning effort.

I think that this is always an issue to be mindful of, and I am sure that I have been accused of this behaviour in the past. It is hard when you are a campaigner and feel passionately about certain things, and it will always be tempting to bring your own preferences and agendas to the fore.

I remember at Oxfam when we were running the anti-asylum voucher campaign, I did wonder at certain stages whether this was the right issue or whether this was just an issue that resonated with me. But it just took some travel around the country to meet with refugee community organisations for me to appreciate the devastating impact that this voucher scheme was having on asylum seekers, and this feedback only served to energise me still further.

Years later, campaigning on a related issue at the Red Cross, I remember going to a meeting in Portsmouth, and raising my outstanding concerns about asylum support via a payment card, and I was overwhelmed by the strength of feeling from the volunteers, many of whom were asylum seekers and refugees, about why this system needed to be scrapped and replaced by cash support.

Personal motivation is important in advocacy campaigns; yet it becomes powerful when it is aligned with a powerful mandate from the people directly affected by the issue. For any campaigner, I will always be interested to hear how they talk about their mandate and their legitimacy on their issue. This issue can be our ‘Achilles heel’ as campaigners if we are not clear about our mandate.

A campaign cannot just be fuelled by a personal agenda; yet where personal motivation is connected with a strong mandate that is a powerful combination.

I do also think how an advocacy campaigner stays motivated is important. I like to talk on my training courses about ‘reservoirs of motivation.’ Where does a campaigner go to be re-motivated? One reason that I have sustained my connection with City of Sanctuary is that it has enabled me to sustain my connection with refugees and asylum seekers. It has been this connection with real people suffering from the excesses of Government policy that has served as my ‘reservoir of motivation.’ How do you stay motivated?

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Obstacle 6 – lack of a theory of change

Have you seen this one? So much effort goes into producing the research report and maybe getting some media coverage, and then you just collapse exhausted with little idea of how all this action happens so that something else happens.

But without your theory of change at least sketched out, there is a good chance that your report will just be filed and all momentum lost. The answer is I think simple – write out your theory of change using the simple ‘so that’ formula. I am going to do something so that something else happens. And then review what should be no more than a couple of sides of paper on a regular basis. Simple but it does makes you think about momentum, which is so vital on an effective campaign. Any campaign needs a road map for the journey ahead and the theory of change offers you just that.

I do think when approval is being sought for an advocacy campaign, in addition to a clear message; I would also look for a compelling theory of change rooted in a robust analysis of the external political environment.

I have lost count of the times in the past that I have attended campaign launches in Parliament: glossy report, maybe a video, good political speeches, wine and canapés so that …… I remain to be convinced that change happens because of a good launch; it will be down to a good launch that then leads to a chain of events driven by your theory of change.

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Obstacle 5 – lack of a common understanding of advocacy campaigns

This is another classic. With almost all of the advocacy campaigns consultancy work that I have done over the past 10 years or so this issue comes up. I find myself saying I really don’t mind what your definition of advocacy campaigning is, but I wish you had a common one. A definition that the communications, research, policy, marketing, fundraising or supporter relations people can all sign up to. Is that really so hard?

I hope that this website might be helpful in encouraging organisations to develop their own definition (and name) for advocacy, campaigning, advocacy campaigning or whatever they feel comfortable with.

Yet I have also seen that while it may be relatively easy to agree a theoretical definition of advocacy campaigns, the real problems begin to emerge when real advocacy campaigning begins to happen. I have heard senior people say that while they supported advocacy campaigns, they had no idea that it would involve doing x or y activity.

Here I think a working theory of change can be important in selling advocacy campaigns within an organisation. A shared definition is important – maybe something around a problem, a solution and then trying to influence the person with the power to make the desired change. But then a theory of change can begin to tell the story of how you want to see the advocacy campaign unfold.

I do think that a combination of a clear message (problem + solution) together with a powerful future story (or theory of change) for how you want to see your campaign develop can be incredibly helpful in securing internal understanding and support (and indeed for attracting new allies and supporters).

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