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Getting the right balance

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.