Whose fight is it?

Being in a room full of campaigners who are sharing ideas, experiences and skills is always thrilling. Last weekend was the annual gathering of the people at the forefront of securing change for people living with motor neurone disease (MND) and their families. Each year the event grows as we recruit and develop more activists, and it’s a great reminder of how far we’ve come. I had a wobbly moment when I walked into the dining room on the first night and realised we’d outgrown the space we’d comfortably fit into the previous year. It was emotional.

The weekend featured a mixture of talks, skill-shares and activities. As always, the best bits happened around the formal programme, with people troubleshooting over coffee and exchanging ideas as they stitched (to my delight we had a ‘craftivist corner’ this year, thanks to the fabulous Katy Styles). The energy in the room was palpable and you could see new friendships forming. The effects last well beyond the weekend.

People come to the event partly to find out what the organisation is doing and its future plans, and campaigners have the chance to hear what the chief executive and external affairs director have to say about this. Most importantly from my point of view though is creating a space where activists are encouraged to take ownership of the campaigning, and feel responsible for driving it forward themselves. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently – thinking about whose fight it is, and what we do as a sector to equip those people to take the fight on.

Experts by experience

People with lived experience of the issue are the most valuable asset any campaigning organisation can have. I’m speaking as someone who works for an organisation that works on a disease I don’t have. Some paid campaigners are personally affected by the issue they work on, and that’s a good thing, but many don’t/aren’t. There are some risks when campaigning is solely ‘done’ by people like me:

  1. Inauthenticity – we know that targets want to hear from their constituents, not professional lobbyists, and they want the message to be genuine and in the person’s own words, not rehearsed and templated (Esther Foreman’s report on this is good). We’ve just had a project we’re running at my charity evaluated – thanks Jim Coe! – and what’s come through really strongly is how much councillors, the target of the campaign, were motivated to act as a result of hearing the person’s story. The volunteer-led approach has been vindicated.
  2. Picking the wrong issues or approach – campaigns fail to get off the ground when cooked up in a darkened room with little or no engagement with supporters. We might have picked the wrong issue, framed it poorly, or simply failed to convince people the issue is worth fighting for or winnable.
  3. Paternalism – thinking that people with lived experience are so busy coping with their disease/ caring responsibilities/other circumstance that they don’t have time or strength to campaign. This nearly always comes from a good place, but is frankly insulting. It is also easily disproved by pointing to the endless campaigns run by and for people facing injustice across the world.
  4. Being under ambitious with asks – I’m not sure what’s more to blame for this one, people like me or the rise of the internet and digital tools. We have more people than ever taking actions, but largely in a light-touch way e.g. by completing an e-action or signing a petition. We’re almost afraid of inviting volunteers to take more involved action despite the evidence that a large portion want to do more.
  5. Being too patient – there’s nothing like being told you or a loved one has a terminal disease to throw a campaign into sharp relief. There’s a balance to be struck between encouraging campaigners to see the long game, and acting with urgency.
  6. Power and say – more professional campaigners, particularly when arranged in hierarchical structures, can lead to fewer people with lived experience in decision-making positions. And having a board of volunteer trustees doesn’t cut it.

Like all risks, these things can be managed. I’m not advocating we sack all paid campaigners and ask everyone to work for free. One of the benefits of the professionalisation of the charity sector, and by extension, campaigning, is that a much broader range of people can work full time on the biggest issues of the day without having to have a pile of private wealth to draw on (though the charity sector remains largely dominated by middle class white folk – but that’s a whole other blog). I still encounter people who think I volunteer for a living, or think the sector is made up of well-meaning amateurs. Like everyone else, I find this irritating: I’m proud of my profession and want the high standards we work to be recognised and valued.

Nonetheless we do need to take a long, hard look at the risks and act to mitigate them. If we don’t we’ll inadvertently relegate people who know the most about the issue we’re working on from the forefront to the fringes of campaigning. This can fuel a disconnectedness with the communities we serve that seriously hurts our chances of winning.

What we can offer 

It feels like there is a lot of soul-searching going on in the sector on this issue at the moment, with some useful projects emerging such as Lost Voices. I take heart from the fact that a growing number of campaigners are talking about this and taking steps to correct it. This is my attempt to throw some thoughts into the mix.

As I see it, our job is to train, develop, stretch and support people who are facing the injustice, not do the campaigning for them. This isn’t, I stress isn’t, about merely embedding ‘the user voice’ in campaigns. Sadly, this usually amounts to nothing more than using people with lived experience to legitimise what we want to campaign on. It is handing over – or more appropriately, back – power and control to those people facing the injustices to be at the forefront of the campaigning.

So what is the role of the professional campaigners and the organisations that hire them? Here’s what I think we should be focusing on offering:

  1. Technical expertise – whether its campaign strategy and planning, policy analysis, public affairs savvy, or digital know-how, we have a lot of expertise to offer (note – expertise is not to be confused with professional snobbery)
  2. Infrastructure – organisations have an important role to play in building the infrastructure needed to campaign effectively. For example, recruitment of new activists works best when there are processes in place to find and retain the best people. Similarly, volunteers really benefit from knowing there are schemes available to train, develop and support them. The list goes on.
  3. Coordination – the best event I’ve been to this year was with Tom Liacas of NetChange, hosted by SMK in March. Tom made a solid case that the most effective campaigns today are ones that are led by a central body that frames the issues and coordinates energies towards key milestones in quite a disciplined way, while allowing the grassroots to have freedom, agency and control over the specifics. 350.org’s work on fossil fuel divestment in Europe and MoveOn’s work resisting the repeal of the Affordable Healthcare Act over in America are good examples of this. I’d highly recommend Networked Change: How progressive campaigns are won in the 21st Century to anyone wanting to find out more about directed-network campaigns.
  4. Research and listening – organisations are well placed to conduct research that can fuel campaigns. This is a way of getting the collective lived experience, if you like, rather than relying on anecdote. Concerted listening is really important too, and I’ve seen some interesting use of digital tools to aid this. For example, at the NCVO conference last year I learnt that LSE had crowdsourced a UK constitution using a platform that involved 1,500+ people and 25,000 votes.
  5. Monitoring, evaluation and sharing good practice – if we’re developing activists, setting them free and keeping track of what works (and doesn’t work), we can develop a unique birdseye perspective. We’re then well placed to spread the learning back throughout the base, and maintain a continuous feedback loop. We do this where I work by using Yammer to connect activists who are geographically dispersed, and at least once a year, bringing them together physically, and constantly encouraging them to share what they’re doing with each other.

What’s your legacy?

Charities often use the term ‘beneficiaries’ to refer to the people who benefit from their activities, including campaigns. I hate this phrase, for me, it’s much too passive. That’s not to say I don’t believe that people benefit from the work I do, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it. I spend an almost unhealthy amount of time thinking about my work and I’m totally committed to the fight. Ultimately though, I know it’s not my fight, it’s theirs. The disabled people and carers I work with will be there long after I’m gone, and it’s my responsibility as a professional campaigner to use the resources I’m entrusted with to help build their capacity and resilience to outlast any particular employee or department.

The US academic Hahrie Han draws a comparison with the way businesses assess their profits and assets:

“Any investor knows that it would be silly to invest in a company that had huge profits in one year yet carried no assets forward. The same is true for civic organizations, whose most important assets are their people. In my research, the civic organizations with the highest levels of activism were the ones that made the equivalent of huge profits in one year by engaging lots of people. But they did that in ways that sustained and built their assets for the following years and increased the capacity of their activists to do more in the future.” – Hahrie Han, Scholars Strategy Network, Aug 2014

If we accept this model, the question we should ask ourselves as professional campaigners is not ‘what have I won for my beneficiaries?’ but ‘what have I done to grow the assets my group has to win the fight after I’m gone?’


2 thoughts on “Whose fight is it?

  1. Oh Alice. It’s a great piece. So proud to get a mention.. It will as you say always be my fight but its our efforts together that make that fight an effective battle.


  2. This strongly resonated with me as an organizer and staff person within a number of different movements. It’s always surprised me how little we’ve changed advocacy campaign development processes to be participatory and grounded in lived experiences, while startups (who usually don’t have any values beyond making 10x profits) actually prioritize extensive user research and involvement in their products. The MobLab is doing some interesting work with their Campaign Accelerator trainings, and Dave Karp’s Analytic Activism book has new models for digital listening (including my dear departed org, Upwell), but by and large there’s a gaping hole for this discussion and I appreciate this post for taking it on with clarity and practicality.


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