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Obstacles to effective campaigning with some answers

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.


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.