Have you noticed that ‘offline’ is now all the rage?
I’m not sure if its because of the chart-topping success of books like New Power, or because we’re butting up against the limitations of digital-only campaigning, but there seems to be a renewed interest in so-called offline activism among charity sector leaders in the past few years.
Local campaigning, community organising, grassroots activism – whatever your preferred term for real people taking part in campaigns on the ground – seems to be the flavour du jour.
As a result, campaigners in organisations big and small are finding themselves being tasked with, as more than one comrade has put it to me, “working out what we can do locally.”
Usually the edict has come from their manager, their manager’s manager, or perhaps even the CEO. What begins as a seemingly straight-forward task to find a few different local campaigning models and stick them into a report, can rapidly spiral, unleashing all manner of unexpected questions.
I usually meet people when the magnitude of what they’ve actually been tasked with has set in. I sip my coffee and nod with familiarity as I listen to the questions being grappled with. Questions like:
- How would this fit with the national campaigning we’re doing at the moment?
- Do we have the skills and expertise in the team to do this?
- We’re at full capacity now, how the hell are we going to resource this?
Unfortunately I don’t have the answer to those questions (sorry!) What I do have is 6 tips to help you work out what your organisation’s local campaigning might look like.
1. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve
Establish what your organisation hopes to gain by campaigning locally. You (and by that I mean the collective you) should be able to articulate what policy change or campaign goals campaigning locally will help you win that you can’t get by direct lobbying alone. If you can’t articulate this, or different colleagues have different answers to this question, you’re going to have a tough time answering all the other questions.
Start by asking the person who has tasked you with this if they have a particular vision of local campaigning in mind. A good exercise is to ask them to close their eyes and describe what they see local activists doing. There’s a big difference between getting some supporters to lobby their MPs when you ask them to, and building self-sufficient power bases capable of running local campaigns. Explore these differences. People may not immediately appreciate the difference between the two, but try to tease out what their expectations are. If you’ve taken it upon yourself to design your local campaigning strategy, unpack your own vision and expectations. Doing this is important because the kinds of activities you want to see locally will have implications for some of the choices you make further down the line (see below).
It’s possible to have more than one objective. Decide what your primary objective is, and distinguish that from other objectives. When I was at a health charity, we decided that as important as empowering people to participate in their local democracy was, this was secondary to winning service improvements that would benefit the wider membership. Setting this as our primary objective helped us to make choices, such as being directive about the policy issues we wanted people to campaign on locally. Had our objective been different, we might have backed a wider range of campaigns.
2. Engage widely and frequently
You might be the only person with ‘campaigns’ in your job title, but campaigning locally will affect how your wider team operates.
If your team is used to staff-led lobbying of a relatively small group of national politicians and/or civil servants, it will take time to adjust to a wider group being involved. How decisions about strategy and tactics are made and communicated will likely need to shift, to accommodate new stakeholders.
Deciding to campaign locally will likely affect colleagues in other parts of your organisation too. Think about the implications for departments such as (if applicable) service delivery, volunteering, and fundraising teams. You might be lucky enough to work somewhere with a regional structure, and if so, you might be considering adding campaigning to what your colleagues in the field do. Having people on the ground can be a huge advantage, but don’t go too far down the road before finding out what they think about the prospect.
Don’t be surprised if campaigning locally isn’t met with whole-hearted enthusiasm by all of your colleagues, and be prepared to work hard to get their buy-in. People tend to resist change generally, and campaigning can feel particularly scary to people who have little experience of it.
3. Have the difficult conversations up front
Involving people in campaigning, if you want to do it in a meaningful way, requires relinquishing control.
Relinquishing control can bring people out in a cold sweat, especially if your influencing operation has been a closed shop for several years. For example, giving volunteers the freedom to adopt tactics that feel right for a local campaign might result in tactics being chosen that feel uncomfortable compared to what you normally do (e.g. a public demonstration). It’s not easy to face these feelings as no-one wants to admit that’s what’s really going on. However having open conversations about this early on while save you a lot of aggro later.
Bear in mind that as a campaigner you’re likely to have a deep-seated belief in people power, and a strong desire to give maximum autonomy to your campaign’s foot-soldiers. Don’t assume this is everyone else’s starting point. When I was at the aforementioned charity, I believed so strongly that it should be people with direct experience driving our campaigns that it was hard to see beyond this. Carve out spaces for colleagues to share their points of view, ideas and anxieties, and try to stay aware of your own biases.
Exactly how you have this discussion, and who to involve, will depend on your particular organisation’s structure, history and culture. Potential topics to explore are:
- The art of the possible – invite people to explore what could be achieved by campaigning locally, paying close attention to what your campaign and/or organisation actually needs (see 1)
- How the issues will be selected, and by whom. Ask people if they think you should be aiming for the issues you already campaign on nationally to have a local angle, or if issues should be selected locally? Are there any issues you wouldn’t want people to campaign about locally?
- Who does what – Seek views on which staff members should be involved, and what will their roles and responsibilities be? What will volunteers do, and how will what they’re doing sit alongside staff? Are there some activities – such as talking to local decision-makers or writing briefings – that only staff members would do? Or are volunteers capable of anything, with the right support?
Scenario-planning can be useful here. Think about what relinquishing control to people on the ground might look like in your context, and generate hypothetical situations to work through. For example, what would you do if a volunteer went ‘off message’ with an important decision-maker, who subsequently writes a furious letter to your CEO? Or how would you respond if a local group used your organisation’s branding on a press release that mades statements about topics totally beyond your remit? Damaging the organisation’s relationship with individual decision makers, government, and/or other groups is the most common fear associated with local campaigning, in my experience. Working through scenarios before they happen can help you to tease out and explore potentially counter-productive attitudes, behaviours and reflexes.
4. Don’t reinvent the wheel
Explore models of local campaigning that other organisations have in place. People in the sector are very open to chatting about what they’re doing, in my experience, so invite people out for coffee. Try to be open minded, and willing to consider all sorts of models. When evaluating the different models you might find it useful to ask yourself (and those you’re interviewing, if possible):
- Why are they doing local campaigning like this? What might their objectives be? How are these different to ours?
- What’s similar about this organisation and mine? What’s different?
- What issues/ challenges might their model throw up, if were we to adopt something similar? What problems might it resolve?
Resist the temptation to go for the model that is the most appealing to you personally. It might be sexy, but completely wrong for your organisation.
Consider your own organisational history too. Has local campaigning been attempted before? What was it aiming to achieve, how was it structured, and what happened? If it was discontinued, why? If people have had a negative experience of local campaigning in the past, that will likely cloud their view of the next iteration.
5. Seek alignment around a workable model
This is a good time to check back in with whoever tasked you with coming up with your local campaigning options. Do you genuinely have scope to go for a completely new model, or is your task to find some quick wins that you could deliver within your current structure? If in doubt, consider presenting a report with different options your organisation could take forward, and be explicit about the implications of each.
If you are given the green light, work to build consensus around a workable model. Choose a model that is different enough to what you’re currently doing that you can get people excited about it, but also realistic. Organisational culture is extremely difficult to change and if you’re proposing something that runs completely counter to your organisation’s values, capacity or ways of working, it’s unlikely to get off of the ground. Similarly, consider resource you have at your disposal. If you’re an organisation of two members of staff, employing a organiser in every local authority in the country probably ain’t going to happen.
Be prepared to re-engage (see 2) and build an internal constituency of support for your vision. Approach it like you would a campaign – identify your allies, tell a story and build coalitions.
Set out the benefits to the model you’re proposing, but also be up front about the risks and limitations. Every model has disadvantages, spell out what these might be and convince people why it’s worth living with them.
6. If necessary, push back
Despite all the campaigners out there being tasked with exploring local campaigning, I’ve yet to see many organisations actually take the plunge.
More often, well-intentioned pilot projects lose steam, and energy fizzles out. Perhaps organisations realise what’s at stake, and don’t want to take the risk, or aren’t prepared to invest the resource required to make it happen. That’s a real shame, as done thoughtfully, local campaigning can be transformational.
So by all means explore what others are doing, and think creatively about the possibilities for your organisation. But at a certain point may need to turn back to that leader that sent you on your expedition and ask, are we really sure we want to campaign locally? If the answer is yes, don’t be afraid to demand the resources you need to make it happen.