Category Archive: Archived blogs

  1. Obstacles to effective campaigning with some answers

    Leave a Comment

    Last time I wrote about my new area of interest in campaigning – the internal obstacles to effective campaigning. I have been struck how over the past few months running training courses in Berlin and Dublin as well as here in London
    about how often this issue crops up.

    So what are those obstacles? Why don’t more people and NGOs run campaigns? What do you think? On a long journey recently I tried to list the obstacles that I had either experienced or heard of – and then I tried to sketch out a possible answer.

    I think that I could have stumbled upon a big issue here and what I offer now is just work in progress – but what do you think?

    Have I missed any obstacles? I will recap on the obstacles from last time and
    now also try to suggest some possible answers.

    Lack of research

    I have seen this happen so many times – people say we would love to campaign but we need more research. Yes, research is vital for effective campaigning but it is also a major delaying tactic. Be wary of the call for more research? It can just push your energy into the long grass. I have launched campaigns with precious little evidence, just moral outrage. We then went back and got the evidence but it did not stop us speaking out, seizing the moment and developing campaigning momentum.

    Nervous leadership

    Here the campaigners are ready, but the organisation’s leadership is nervous and the campaign stalls. An explicit risk assessment can be a great tool to confront this nervousness and show how you are going to minimise any risks. Also Brian Lamb’s
    excellent NCVO campaigns guide for trustees is another great tool to minimise
    campaigning nervousness.

    Resources

    This is a classic. We would love to campaign but we need a full-time campaigns post. What rubbish! I say give me an hour a week and we can begin to make things happen. With a clear focus and plan, you can achieve so much with so little – if you have the will.

    Lack of shared values

    This is a sad one. The obstacle to campaigning comes down to a not having a shared value set. Again as with earlier obstacles, it can help to be explicit about these values and not to be base actions on assumptions. Are we really a campaigning organisation agitating for change? Or are we not? But initiate this conversation – do not assume that you are all on the same page.

    Lack of common understanding of advocacy

    This is another classic. With almost all of the advocacy campaigns consultancy work that I have done over the past 5 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 have a common one. A definition that the communications, research, policy, marketing, fundraising or supporter relations people all sign up to. Is that really so hard?

    Lack of a theory of change

    Have you seen this one? I know I have been guilty of this. 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 all this action happening 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.

    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.

    Internal disharmony

    This is another sad one. Here the team or organisation is undermined by internal conflict. Sadly this can be a problem specially in small NGOs but it does undermine effective campaigning. Clearly this disharmony need 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?

    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 a clear focus and goal. And this is time well worth spent to be clear about your answer to why you are campaigning. Don’t assume – be explicit.

    We are too busy to campaign

    Have I left the best until last? 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 who 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.

    If I have made overcoming all of these obstacles sound easy, then I apologise – I know that it is far from easy. After over 10 years’ experience of campaigning with NGOs plus my freelance work internationally I am convinced that these internal obstacles represent some of the biggest hurdles we campaigners face. If you disagree, then I am happy for you and get on enjoying your campaigning.

    But if you agree with me – what do you think about my answers? And do you have anything better to offer? It would be great to hear your views.

  2. Influencing the faces of power

    Leave a Comment

    A few months ago, I was in Haiti where I spent 5 days running an advocacy training course for community organisations from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

    Despite the language barrier, with everything needed to be translated into Creole, I was really interested in how some of the core advocacy campaign techniques seemed to resonate in this challenging campaigning environment. Since the earthquake in January 2010, there has been a huge challenge to meet the need from this disaster and to ensure that all of the international aid effort is used in the most effective way for the local population.

    The community groups that I was working with were very interested to apply the advocacy campaign techniques in their own context to strengthen their advocacy work and ensure that community voices were heard in the policy debate.

    And this interest translated itself in some extremely interesting and challenging questions. My favourite question must have been asking how using an influence tree works with a power analysis where you look for the three faces of power: public, hidden and the insidious. The public face being possibly the government minister in charge of the issue; the hidden face being possibly the Treasury minister; and the insidious face being possibly cultural or religious influence in the country.

    I thought that this was a great question. When we cover the influence tree technique, we talk about the importance of identifying one target that has the power to make the change that you are seeking. In addition to the direct route to your target, you also identify the other possible channels that you can use to seek to influence your target.

    But how do you respond where there are different faces of power? How does an influence tree work then? Do you need to have three different influence trees to contend with the public, hidden and insidious faces of power? Or can you prioritise the different faces of power? For example if you identify from your power analysis that the most important face of power is the hidden face of say the Treasury Minister, then do you use the public face and the insidious faces of power as routes on the way to influence the hidden face?

    Such that you know that you need try to influence, or at least try to neutralise, the public and the insidious faces of power en route to influencing the hidden face of power.

    A great question – but what do you think is the answer?

  3. The campaigning staircase

    Leave a Comment

    I have written many times before about how important I think a theory of change is when you are developing your advocacy campaign. And while that may sound complex, it can be as simple as just developing a ‘so that’ chain of events. Using the words ‘so that’ to show how your actions are going to help your campaign take off, build momentum and deliver impact.

    When I am running training courses, I am also keen to use the ‘but why’ technique. Again this is an incredibly simple tool to get to the root cause of a problem.

    You start with your problem driving your campaign and ask ‘but why’ is this a problem? And you keep asking ‘but why’ until you get to the real cause of the problem. This simple tool, while it can be irritating, can be a great way to ensure that you avoid focussing on the superficial causes to your problem and that your campaign can tackle the real issues.

    I was running a training session for refugee supporting NGOs in South Africa a few months ago when a participant asked what you should do if the answer to one of our ‘but why’ questions was ‘maybe’. I thought that this was a great question. If your answer is maybe, then it shows that you do not really know and that you need more research and evidence before you can launch your campaign. The ‘but why’ technique can be a great way to check if you are ready to launch your campaign.

    And it is so much better to find out that you don’t really know the answer to ‘but why’  in private as I have found that politicians and journalists are very skilled in asking the ‘but why’ question. Time spent on this exercise is priceless as part of your initial campaign planning.

    It is also a great exercise to do with your campaign team and to repeat at regular intervals using any new campaign intelligence.

    But it was only when I was running a training course for Christian Aid in Haiti last month that I really began to see the connection between ‘so that’ and ‘but why’. Once we had covered these two tools, one participant offered the following insight: “these tools are like a campaigning staircase. You need to go down the staircase to find out why you are in this position and to do that you ask ‘but why’? But you also need to go up the staircase to find out where you are going with your campaign and to do that you repeat ‘so that’.

    I loved that insight – these two tools allow you to move up and down the campaigning staircase. Maybe something to think about next time you are doing some campaign planning?

  4. Informal influencing

    Leave a Comment

    A few months ago I was running an advocacy and policy influencing course in West Africa for a group of doctors who wanted to run a national campaign on maternal health in order to tackle the horribly high number of women who were dying when giving birth.

    The course seemed to be going well until we got onto influence, and I began to explain how to use an influence tree. I started off by focussing on their target of their advocacy campaign and then began to talk through possible routes of influence to get to this target. I used an example from another advocacy campaign to get them thinking about how the influence tree might be applied in their cultural context.

    Then one of the group interrupted me and asked me – what about GFs? I was stumped. I have run similar courses around the world and no-one had ever asked me about GFs. My mind raced – what could GF stand for in an advocacy sense? I didn’t have a clue.

    The group then laughed realising that I didn’t understand the question. Don’t you know what GFs stand for? I had to admit that I didn’t. They then took great delight in telling me that GFs stood for girl friends.

    This answer this opened up a new area of discussion around informal routes of influence. In this country the identities of girl friends of leading politicians were public knowledge, so if you were planning an advocacy campaign on maternal health and were targeting a politician who had a girlfriend, then she could be a potential route of influence. This point then got the group thinking much more broadly about other sources of informal influence on their target. Their influence tree suddenly expanded dramatically with a whole array of other routes of more informal influence.

    It made me reflect that sometimes we focus only on the formal and established routes of influence in developing advocacy campaigns, when very often those in power are also influenced by informal sources. In the context of your campaigning work are there any informal routes of influence that you might be missing?

  5. Getting the right balance

    Leave a Comment

    Over the past five years or so I have had the chance to do a regular session on NCVO’s certificate in campaigning. I always enjoy these sessions as NCVO attracts a diverse group and their questions are guaranteed to be good and do make me think.

    Last time there was a question about public campaigning – how much control should an NGO seek to exert when trying to mobilise the public – should you go for control or be more relaxed? This is an interesting question and has come up a number of times in campaign training sessions here in the UK and internationally.

    My NGO campaigning started by being schooled in a very rigid approach to campaigning. You knew when you wanted public involvement and you told them what to say and when.

    In recent years I have moved away from that school of thought. Possibly the one event that forced my shift in thinking came out of the lessons from Obama’s first Presidential election campaign: to lower the barriers to entry and to encourage supporters to use their own words and reasons to explain why there were supporting the campaign.

    I was very taken by these two ideas – lowering the barriers and encouraging people to do campaigning in their own way with their own words. But were they applicable in the UK?

    I got a speedy answer to this question during my time at the British Refugee Council. We had been running a national campaign to allow asylum seekers to work. This right had been taken away in 2002 and there was a strong argument for allowing asylum seekers to support themselves as opposed to having to rely on state support. At a national level we forged a strong campaigning alliance with the TUC and endeavoured to push this issue at a national level.

    A while later I met the Regional Refugee Forum North East – an inspiring refugee-led group based in Gateshead. I was enthused by what they had done with this campaign. They had taken our national campaign and made it their own in the North East forging their own link with the regional TUC. They put their own branding on their materials, used their own words but the key message remained the same. I just loved how they had taken the national NGO’s campaign and made it their own at a local level. And it was so much more powerful as a result. When they met with the region’s MPs they were talking as genuinely concerned local residents running their own campaign – not as local voices for a distant national campaign.

    I would love to take the credit for this powerful regional campaign but I can’t – it had nothing to do with me. The regional forum had just taken our campaign and interpreted it in their own local context. And it was so much more powerful.

    The more I think about public campaigning and the role of national NGOs, the more I come back to Obama’s key principles and this example from the north east of England. I think national NGOs should instigate and drive national campaigns based on their evidence and local evidence from their partners. They should get the evidence out and promote campaign materials and ideas for actions before letting local groups interpret this material in their own way to run their own campaigns.

  6. Bringing your theory of change to life

    Leave a Comment

    I’ve written before about the importance of developing a theory of change as part of your campaign planning. There has been a lot written about this approach to campaigning, but stripped to its most basic I think it centres around two words: so and that.

    You do something so that something else happens so that something else happens, and before you launch your campaign using this tool, you can show how your campaign is going to take off. I wish when I had started out campaigning someone had told me about this simple tool and how important it was to write it down and then regularly review it.

    I was out in Tanzania recently doing some work with the Africa team for the World Society for the Protection of Animals. We had spent two days together covering  the basics of campaigning, and then we had the luxury of two more days to put this learning into action.

    They were keen to use the theory of change model on one of their campaigns. As a trainer I was intrigued to see whether this tool would be useful for them and how they would use it. So it was great to see them work as a group developing their theory of change. But what most struck me was how they were having robust arguments for each stage of their model.

    One colleague would suggest a next step, another would question whether that would actually follow, and then the originator of the idea would have to justify their thinking. We ended up with a theory of change on their issue on which they  had robustly challenged each other through every step. I was really excited to see  how they had worked to together to build a cohesive plan.

    I am also doing some work in the UK with a group of small charities working in the refugee sector. Here again we have been developing a theory of change to help them to develop their campaigning agenda. We are beginning now to come up with an interesting theory of change that we have tested with each other internally. Yet we know we need to test it still further.

    So we are going to talk to a few friendly politicians across all the parties to test out our theory of change model with them. We may have convinced ourselves that this theory of change will work, but will people working in different sectors and especially those working within the political sphere agree with our thinking or will they challenge our way of thinking.

    I know that you can never second guess the future, but an effective campaigner  surely needs to see where their campaign is going and then is ready to test their thinking with their colleagues and with key external partners. I think one part of successful campaigning is a readiness to challenge your own thinking – how robust is your theory of change?

  7. Obstacles to effective campaigning

    Leave a Comment

    Much of my writing and training on campaigning over the last five years or so has been around the theme of successful campaigning and I have tried to use my time to encourage others on what is possible for them to campaign about.

    But in recent months, I have begun to wonder if in fact by taking such a route I have ignored one of the biggest issues in ensuring effective campaigning – by which I mean spending time looking at the internal obstacles to effective campaigning.

    So what are those obstacles? Why don’t more people and NGOs run campaigns? What do you think? On a long journey recently I tried to list the obstacles that I had either experienced or heard of.

    I think that I could have stumbled upon a big issue here, and what I offer now is just work in progress – but what do you think? Have I missed any obstacles?

    Lack of research

    I have seen this happen so many times – people say we would love to campaign on an issue but we need more research. So the campaign stalls. While research is important, it can also be a huge reason for delay in starting a campaign.

    Nervous leadership

    Here the campaigners are ready, but the organisation’s leadership is nervous and the campaign stalls.

    Resources

    This is a classic. The argument goes – we would love to campaign but we need a full-time campaigns post. And that nothing is possible without such a post. Really?

    Lack of shared values

    This is a sad one. The obstacle to campaigning comes down to not having a shared value set within the organisation.

    Lack of 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 5 years or so this issue comes up. The issue of a common definition within the organisation is so important. I often find myself saying I don’t care what your definition is, but I would like you to share the same one within the
    organisation.

    Lack of a theory of change

    Have you seen this one? I know I have been guilty of this. 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 all this action happening 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 or thrown away and all momentum lost.

    Individual agendas taking over

    Here campaigning is undermined because individuals have their own agendas and seek opportunities to develop their agendas.

    Internal disharmony

    This is another sad one. Here the team or organisation is undermined by internal conflict. Sadly this can be a problem specially in small NGOs and it does so undermine effective campaigning.

    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. And agreement on the goal is so important.

    We are too busy to campaign

    Have I left the best until last? I see this so often – we are so busy delivering services to meet the need that we can’t campaign. So that nothing ever changes so that you stay busy. I just get excited by those smaller NGOs who 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.

    So that’s my initial list. I am sure that I have missed loads. What do you think? It would be great to hear from you with other obstacles and we could then publish them in a fresh blog. And I will try next time to tentatively suggest some answers to these obstacles.

  8. Campaigning in Somalia

    Leave a Comment

    One of my recurrent themes for this blog over the years has been my fascination and amazement at the fact that the language of campaigning is truly international.

    I recently put that theory to the test again by undertaking an assignment for Saferworld in Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland.

    Over a five day period I ran a two day advocacy course followed by a three day train the trainers’ course so that the participants could take the training out to their communities and inspire advocacy action.

    The audience was representatives from the three non-state actor platforms in Somaliland (SONSAF), Puntland (PUNSAA) and South and Central Somalia (SONSCENSA). These platforms consisted of member organisations ranging
    from community groups to business associations.

    On my trip out to Somaliland via Nairobi I did feel somewhat apprehensive. This was one of the most challenging environments for advocacy campaigning – would my messages resonate with them?

    But my feelings of apprehension were soon swept away as a focus on problem and solution, evidence, messaging, allies, influence trees, using opposition and a theory of change seemed to work with them.

    Even the elevator pitch – 15-30 seconds to convey your key campaign message – seemed to work although we struggled for a while with the Somali translation for elevator pitch.

    Then the train the trainers section proved to be inspiring to me as the platforms began to construct their own training in their own words so that they could take the training out themselves.

    But above all I was left with an overriding impression of passionate and committed people driven to promote the role of civil society in making a difference to people’s lives and futures and committed to using advocacy methods to achieve this change.

    Advocacy campaigning really is an international language.

  9. So what next?

    Leave a Comment

    I recently returned from Germany where I led an advocacy capacity building session for an NGO, and as I have often remarked in the past in a room full of different nationalities, there really is a common international language of advocacy campaigns.

    I was also struck at how the big challenges in this work are also common. For me in my day job at the Refugee Council I am forever boring my colleagues about the importance of momentum in successful campaigning. Getting a sense of momentum and progress with a campaign is just so important but also so hard sometimes to achieve.

    During the session in Germany, we talked about the huge internal effort that can sometimes go into producing a report, developing key messages and then maybe holding a press conference. Once that has been achieved and a few press headlines garnered, it is tempting just to collapse with all of the energy used up.

    But this is just the start of something in advocacy terms – how is the report, messages and press coverage going to be used to energise the broader campaign for the impact you are seeking?

    I have been heavily influenced, as I have written before, about the importance of a theory of change in advocacy campaigning. Now this sounds really complex but it can be as simple as developing a road map for how you want to see your issue take off. And you can be helped by those two little words ‘so’ and ‘that’.

    So I found towards the end of the session that people were talking about an advocacy activity like a press release or a lobbying meeting, then pausing before linking up the sentence with a ‘so that’ and going on to list future advocacy activities.

    I know it all sounds so simple. So simple that I know myself from my own practice that we don’t always get around to doing so.

    At the Refugee Council we have identified our four key advocacy priorities for action (and in case you’re interested they are: destitution, detention, housing and legal support to asylum seekers.) And we are now beginning to develop our theories of change for each issue, fuelled by some research and beginning to map out how we want these issues to take off.

    So next time you find yourself talking about an advocacy activity don’t just stop there – pause, say ‘so that’ and then continue with your aspirations. I am convinced that one enemy of effective advocacy campaigning is a lack of momentum – but a persistent use of ‘so that’ can be a very powerful remedy. What do you think?

  10. Building capacity for advocacy campaigning

    Leave a Comment

    What is the best way to help train campaigners? Is it a week long course? A day course at regular intervals? Mentoring support? A peer group?

    There is clearly no one answer but it is one question that has been much on my mind recently. A year ago at the Refugee Council, we ran a campaign training course for refugee leaders in London. We got good feedback for our training but despite this feedback, the course participants then found it hard to develop their campaigns. We offered mentoring support focussing on the individual organisation and the campaigning activity took off.

    Our reflection on our learning was that while our training had been ok, it had been offered at an abstract level and had not been rooted in the daily experiences of the organisations. We are about to engage in year 2 of this project and this time around we will be focussing both on developing the capacity of the organisations as well as developing their campaigning skills.

    Campaign training cannot exist in a vacuum – it has to be applied to the reality of the campaigning environment, both internal and external, which is facing the organisation.

    It did make me reflect that as an activist learner, I was far more focussed on running campaigns and delivering campaign training than on the practical day to day realities for the organisation. But when I paused for thought it has always been the internal dynamics that have presented the biggest challenges to my campaigning.

    So when I had the chance to hear Chris Stalker talk about his new praxis paper for INTRAC on capacity building for advocacy, I knew after my recent experiences that I had to be there to hear his conclusions. His presentation was very helpful to my thinking and his paper has just been published – see Intrac

    Do make sure that you have a look at this paper; it contains plenty of food for thought and has helped me to think about this issue.

    And a few months ago when I ran the advocacy and policy influencing course for INTRAC to an audience of NGO staff from across the globe, I was keen for Chris to come along as a guest speaker. I was interested to see how his message went down so well with such a diverse audience. From their positive feedback this is clearly an issue whose time has come.

    How are you approaching capacity building for your advocacy work?