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Up all night – questions about the direction of campaigning

Occasionally I find myself wide awake in the middle of the night (tip here – if you ever find yourself in the same situation put on Radio 5, you’ll get to experience Up All Night, one of the best shows on the radio) and I find it’s (sometimes) the time to consider some the big questions about campaigning.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a few events where I’ve been able to wrestle with some of the big questions that Campaigners are facing into. It kicked off  at a discussion as part of the Sheila McKenchnie Foundation Social Change Project, then I got to hang out with some of the team at The Good Lab, before finishing up at CharityComms post-election event for campaigns leaders.

So lots of good conversations, but what are the big questions about campaigning that are keeping me awake at night? Here are a few I’d suggest from listening to conversations in the last few weeks;

1. What’s the future of digital campaigning? We’ve all dived in wholeheartedly to embrace the opportunities that digital campaigning provides to win change and increase our supporter base – and seen many successes as a result, but as organisations find it harder to mobilise the numbers needed to win change, while acquiring new supporters is proving harder to do for many – impacted I think by the wider conversation about charity preferences.  So if the future isn’t in list growth and petition inflation is starting to fatigue many of our targets, then what is the future approach? How do we harness a digital first approach to ensure we have real impact. How do we embrace the way that digital has transformed and democratised campaigning for so many?

2. What does true collaboration look like? We all know that unusual coalitions secure change, and many of us are actively working with others in our campaigns. But given the scale of the challenges that we face, and the limited resources that we have, do we need to consider deeper forms of collaboration? That could be around building shared tools, or finding shared narratives that we can all use beyond single issues. But beyond that what does collaboration look? What’s the role for bigger and more well resourced campaigning organisations to support individuals and movements that are being established?

3. Do we even know the edge of our bubbles? We are increasingly more data driver in our campaigning. We segment based on what you’ve done previously and we aim to target individuals we believe are most likely to take, but are there limited to being data driven, and does it just keep us in our bubble without realising what’s happening outside it. How do we rediscover the skills of listening and adapting to what the external world is telling us. Everyone marveled, for a time, at what Kony 2012 achieved, but that was because they’d sharpened their message by getting out at the coal face and giving hundreds of talks to their target audience of young people.

4. Do we worry enough about our opponents? It’s perhaps a result of how much campaigning has been professionalised, but how munch time are we actually thinking and anticipating our opponents? If the root of the word campaigning comes from the military concept of ‘taking the field’ – as troops moved from the safety of a town or fort into a field for battle – do we need to grow more confident about defining and naming our opposition? Is it OK to put no limits on who is on ‘our side’ and see campaigning as simply a skill like IT programming, or do we need to be clearer on calling out who our opponents are? In politics, opposition research is a key part of any professional operation, but while we devote resources to define our power mapping, should we do more to understand what making our opponents tick?

5. Are charities the best vehicles to deliver social change? I was struck by a comment at one of the sessions about how we need to do more to create organisations that are able to bring about change. Do our structures and approaches actually prevent us for responding in the ways that we need to?

As Naveed from Results observesRecent mobilisations channelling public concern have been far more organic; not leaderless or disorganised, but working perfectly well without a top-down structure. Successful movements allow people to do their own thing, based on a central idea or goal that fires their imagination, but doesn’t tell them what to do. Look at the way people came together around the Manchester terrorist attack, the Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter, or the Refugees Welcome movement. Only in the latter have NGOs played any kind of a role, and it seems that we haven’t yet properly woken up to the reality of how people organise around causes today.

And if we do have a role to play, and I think we do, how do we adapt to respond to the times we’re in and the approaches we’re finding are successful.

6. Where does change happen in the new political context? If we’re likely to see a period of political uncertainty, with a Parliament focused almost exclusively on Brexit, and all of the parties having their own internal challenges, how do we adapt as campaigners? Is now the time to invest in long-term attitudinal work that needs to be undertaken, ensuring support among politically key groups. In Parliament, should we continue to look to build support from across parties, or utilise the tiny majority that the Government has to play parties off against each other?

Just a few questions I’m grappling with – what are the questions about campaigning that are keeping you awake?

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