8 things I’ve learnt from a decade of organising and mobilising.

Recently, I was asked by Save the Children’s campaign team to talk about campaigning, organising, mobilising and working directly with those affected by a campaign issue. 

This gave me a really great opportunity to reflect on ten years of lessons learned. Tom Baker, Save’s Director of Campaigns and Organising, helpfully summarised my eight key lessons – and here I’m going to do a deeper dive for aspiring or experienced campaigners. 

1. Whatever your tactical approach, you need a strategy behind it. Every campaign needs to start with a clear strategy.

This sounds like a no-brainer, but the number of activists and organisations who put tactics before strategy is alarmingly high and I’ve been guilty of it too! 

You’ve got a great idea that’s got your brain whirring, and suddenly it doesn’t matter who the target is, what relationships you’ve built up, or even what the campaign aim is – you just want to do it. 

But it’s important to remember that tactics are choices you are making rather than forgone conclusions. Tactics aren’t wholly good, bad or out of bounds. A proper tactical analysis will take you far further than assuming that there’s only one way of campaigning. Sometimes people imagine that organising or mobilising is the Holy Grail when it comes to campaigning – but strategy is what makes the difference.

I’ve worked in spaces where politics dictate the tactic rather than the aim – where we’ve churned out action after action. Ultimately it just tires you and your activists out and makes you feel (and look!) like you aren’t achieving anything.

Here’s a useful tactical analysis exercise you can use: https://commonslibrary.org/tactics-analysis/

2. Be authentic in your listening. Understand how those you’re looking to work with relate to politics and power. 

One of the lessons that I’m most thankful to have learnt from the renters’ movement is that everyone comes into the room with a different relationship to power and they don’t instantly trust the motives or values of different groups. That’s why it’s so important to see campaigns through a few different perspectives:

  1. How are we winning this campaign?
  2. How are we building the power of those affected by this campaign?

NEON have created this brilliant guide to power and privilege you can read here: http://neweconomyorganisers.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/NEON-Power-and-Privilege-Guide.pdf 

3. Ask people if they really believe in your policy solution. If not, don’t expect them to advocate for it, no matter how much they care about a topic.

Once you start campaigning on something you can often get so lost inside it that you forget about the wider movement that the campaign is situated in.

A few years ago I got talking to a feminist campaigner at an event – for months afterwards she bombarded me with messages, asks and actions about her campaign. She never once asked me if I supported the work she was doing or what I was interested in (in fact I didn’t support her campaign – I thought it was somewhat like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic!).

The fact that she and I wanted the same broad end goal of gender equality didn’t mean that we agreed on how we should get there, and that’s okay. This lesson applies to campaigners whether you are organising on the ground or running national campaigns.

4. Really invest in the relationships you are building. Get people involved in different parts of your campaign. 

Lately, I’ve been training a group of brand new activists on how to campaign. Loads of them have felt like they should already be miles ahead – they’ve worried about not having the right idea or not having thousands of Instagram followers.

The recent wave of influencers becoming activists has taught us that one person (often a conventionally attractive white woman) sets up a petition, and – like magic – they win their campaign six months later. We all know that’s not how it works. 

Campaigns work by building power and by building a group of people who are committed to a goal. So don’t just involve people in what I call ‘broadcast actions’ (actions that are about noise, like a petition or emailing a target): get them involved in every section of the campaign. You never know who has an unconventional link to your target, could help you fundraise for a tactic or has exceptional Excel skills. Demystify how campaigns are run and won!

It’s also a solid lesson for anyone who’s put on a campaign meeting to find that they’ve got more biscuits than they do people in the room. If you want to retain people and get them really engaged in your campaign then involve them every step of the way. That way you’ll be breaking up that one big goal into smaller milestones that everyone can get involved in. It creates touchpoints where together you can celebrate, commiserate or reevaluate your strategy.

Want to build power and create change? Take a look at the organiser’s canvas here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gb3pxPSw-AMDDv42dOE8mD_es_ZuVFBZ/view. The colours shift from building power (cold colours) to using power (warm colours) and the symbols represent when you are using your heart, head or hands to organise

5. Think about who is sharing your message.

As campaigners we use messages and frames to highlight important issues. We spend hours thinking about the importance of phrases and words, so why don’t we apply the same rigour to who carries our messages?

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you ask activists or supporters to share your message:

  • Do they really have influence?
  • Can they really reach more people?
  • Can they reach THE person you need? 
  • Do they have their own story to tell, one that means something?

If not, why are you asking them to share your message?

Often we are asking supporters or activists to share our message (back to those ‘broadcast actions’) because we simply haven’t thought of a meaningful action for them to engage in. It’s a lot of wasted energy.

In fact, some decision-makers will become more entrenched in their view if they see you bringing out the same cohort of supporters time and time again – especially if they are sending a template email.

6. Be clear when your campaign will be won – be able to articulate what the finish line will be. 

Early in my career, I was brand new in a role and a colleague pointed out that our organisation had never delivered a petition to the decision-maker and we’d never defined our campaign goal. 

It’s a trap we can often fall into, usually due to one of three reasons:

  • The policy area feels too broad or complex, and it may sound reductive to say one specific thing will solve the problem 
  • You think the public won’t understand your campaign
  • You aren’t convinced public campaigning will win the campaign

So your campaign becomes vaguer and vaguer and you don’t bother putting a supporter                    focused theory of change together at all.

If you want people to come with you on a campaign then you need to show them how you can win together, and all the milestones along the way. Go back to Lesson #4; be honest with people, or involve them in another stage of the campaign.

7. Spend time building relationships with the right activists – accept that this can take time

This is a lesson from a personal hero of mine, Jane McAlevey. We often reach out to the people who we think are ready to be our activists – the ones that we know are completely convinced by our campaign.

A few years ago I was organising in East London, where our campaign didn’t hold much sway. I’d inherited a list of keen beans who wanted to volunteer in the area, talking to people about Brexit and persuading them to join the campaign. They arrived for a door-knocking session wearing EU berets: something that would instantly alienate a lot of the people we were trying to engage.

They weren’t the right people to be fronting that campaign as activists. Jane teaches that the people you really need aren’t always the people who instantly agree with you. Look out for:

  • Those directly affected by the issue at hand
  • Natural and organic leaders rather than the loudest people in the room
  • People others trust
  • People others turn to for help when they aren’t sure how to get something done

It’s your job to persuade these people to your side – and then they become your effective activists!

8. Be patient as you equip people to be involved with you. 

This is a lesson explicitly for the NGO sector – we have such little patience for what genuine engagement means. We think people are instantly ready to be involved and that their calendars will sync up with our campaign priorities.

Think about those directly affected by your issue: they might not have the time to be campaigners straight away. Invite them to an inspiring event, update them on what’s happening with your campaign, ask them questions and give them opportunities. Slowly train them up or include them as you develop your campaign strategy. Your patience will pay off. 

I’m available for work!

Those are my top tips from 10 years of campaigning. I’m so grateful to have worked with grassroots activists and seasoned campaigns who’ve helped me test, reflect and grow. They’ve helped me realise that building power is crucial if we want any of our campaigns to have lasting change.

Looking for a campaigner? I’m finishing my fixed term role at Young Women’s Trust in Feb/March 2021 and available for work so slide into my DMs on Twitter, email or LinkedIn

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