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Photo: Jerry Kiesewetter, Unsplash

The question campaigners hate to answer, but need to

31 January 2019
Author: Kirsty McNeill

It doesn’t take long reading the morning headlines to remember why activism to change the world is important. Alas a hard-nosed reading of the news would also suggest it isn’t being very effective. While there are plenty of examples of against-the-odds campaign victories, they are too few for either the amount of time and money spent or the scale of the challenges before us. 

There is plenty we can’t control, of course, but effective advocacy is about building our collective power to identify and shift the variables we can. Collaboration is key which is why I’m so pleased Future Advocacy and Bond are working together to launch this new series of short films exploring strategy.

I was very pleased to be interviewed in the first one and to lay out some of the big questions I think campaigners need to be asking now. 

  • The first – what do we want? – goes to the heart of why we do what we do. In my experience leading coalitions, advising leaders and now at Save the Children, people in social change organisations tend to be most comfortable asking and answering this question.
  • The second – who can give it to us? – tends to be tougher. There are common traps we all fall into: locating power with people we know, people we like, or people who are paid to care about our issue. Good structured strategy processes tend to be enough for us to coach each other out of these bits of lazy thinking. 
  • The third is where most advocacy fails. We aren’t disciplined enough at asking "why haven’t they given it to us already?". In my previous life as a consultant I tended to be brought in because people needed fast advice and I was paid to be blunt. Then I’d be more likely to ask it this way, "if you’re so smart, how come you’re being beaten so badly?".

The final question hurts, because it forces us to ask why somebody is refusing to do something we think is obviously just and extremely urgent. I understand why we resist it, but it’s killing our chances of achieving change of the scale and speed we need. 

In my experience there are broadly five main reasons advocates haven’t won already:

  • The decision-makers don’t know about our problem, or our solution
  • They know but they have no incentive to act
  • The opposing side is more powerful
  • There’s another issue or constituency which has crowded us out
  • Our proposed solution is fundamentally flawed in some major way 

The key to strategic activism is working out which of these is really going on, in what combination, and with what weighting on each. Happily, each has a tactic associated with it, namely:

  • Informing decision-makers through advocacy
  • Providing an incentive through mobilising powerful communities
  • Holding the other side accountable through the media
  • Forming coalitions or reframing your issue to make it more relevant
  • Researching and refining the flaws in your proposal

Each of the five barriers to change and the five tactics to overcome them are connected to one another and it is rare that we can isolate just one barrier and therefore one tactic so precisely. The thing that connects them all, however, is a confident and creative approach when confronting power. 

With the recent publication of the Civil Society Futures Report there has been a welcome rejuvenation of the sector’s focus on our role in acquiring, wielding and redistributing power in the public interest. This is our heritage – the question is whether it will be our future. I hope by collaborating ever more closely to apply the lessons of this film series we can ensure that it is. 

Hear about successful campaigning from around the world and get ideas for your own advocacy at the Bond Conference, 18-19 March.

About the author

 Kirsty McNeill
Save the Children

Kirsty McNeill leads Save the Children's public and political advocacy work.