Are we really out-of-touch, ineffective and bureaucratic? Thoughts on Charles Secrett's article

Charles Secrett has an article on the Guardian website today which concludes by saying ‘Today’s activists regard once radical organisations as part of the NGO establishment: out-of-touch, ineffective and bureaucratic. The wheel has turned full circle. It is time to rethink and reorganise again’.
Secrett who was executive director of Friends of the Earth (FoE) in the 1990s uses his article, written to mark the organisations 40th birthday, to argue that Greenpeace and FoE are “conservative and unimaginative” and their “ambition is lacking through the fear of being seen to be too political
I’m sure the article will get passed around campaigning organisations in the coming days and will lead to some interesting debates across desks. That’s something to welcome.
Here are a few brief thoughts on some of the comments that Secrett makes.
I agree with the suggestion that we’ve lost some of our creativity in the sector and that perhaps we’ve become over reliant on sending campaign postcards or emails to our campaign targets, rather than exploring more creative forms of action. Secrett writes that ‘Street theatre, consumer boycotts, marches and rallies, backed by authoritative analysis and political campaigning, underpinned strategy’ in the early days of FoE.
It’s good to read the article and be reminded of the way that FoE and others made use of legal channels and other tactics in their earlier campaigning. From this the challenge comes about the need to have a discussion not just about how we use a broader range of tools and tactics, but also how we think more creatively about the targets that we focus on.
I disagree with the assertion that Secrett is making that ‘managers, administrators, communicators and fundraisers outnumber campaigners and researchers’ in our organisations is a wholly bad thing. Why? It’s because it overlooks how vital they can be to running an effective campaign. A good communicator can help to craft a campaigning message that has real impact with a new group that’s currently unengaged, while an effective administrator is the person that plays a pivotal in organising to get activists together.
From my experience many of those ‘managers, administrators, communicators and fundraisers’ have started careers working for NGOs, so they can use the skills and experiences they have to increase the impact of our campaigning. They can be as much a ‘campaigner’ as those who have the word ‘campaign’ in a job title.
I agree that at times some of the larger NGOs haven’t been as agile as they should be. I’ve written about this before and argued that one of the main things that we can learn from movements such as 38 Degrees is that being first to market matters more than ever before.
I disagree with the inference that the higher-levels of activism that built FoE and Greenpeace are the only ones that matter when it comes to policy change. One of the main contributions that organisations like FoE, Greenpeace and WWF have made is that they’ve taken activism from a small group of individuals to a much broader community of activist. We need to accept that not everyone wants to be involved in direct action, but our strength can come from being part of a movement. Sure, we need to continue to debate the most effective tools to use but I think we should find a way that as many as possible can engage.
I agree that we need to think more about how to counter corporate PR. In part, this is a product of the success of our activism which means that companies and other institutions have felt the need as Secrett says ‘employ legions of PR firms to keep campaigners at bay, and support climate deniers and free market optimists to muddy the waters of public opinion’. I don’t think we’ve done enough to understand the extent of these links and the impact that they’ve had on the debate.
No doubt, this is a debate that is going to continue in the coming days. Secrett has highlighted some important challenges, but his article fails to acknowledge a number of things. The role of organisations like FoE and Greenpeace in creating global movements around these issues, the importance of evidence based research to ground our policy recommendations, the changing nature of the media and the way many organisations have innovated around digital media.
What parts of Secrett’s article do you agree or disagree with?

One thought on “Are we really out-of-touch, ineffective and bureaucratic? Thoughts on Charles Secrett's article”

  1. Hi Tom, a good response to the article. I agree that campaigning sometimes is a little to staid and repetitive but, as you say, there are plenty of examples of new campaigning ideas coming through from a range of NGOs.
    I’ve very mixed feelings about the agility shown by 38 degrees et al. It can run counter to exactly the point made in the Guardian article – the great campaigning work of FOE and others is rooted in authoritative analysis and policy. Having met with the guys at 38d I’m aware that it’s not quite as black and white as that – but we need to stay mindful that successful campaigning needs the hard graft of analysis behind it.
    An area neither of you have touched on is new models of engagement and this is where I think things have moved on a lot from the halcyon days cited by Charles Secrett. Greenpeace did some amazing work partnering with domestic appliance companies back in the 90’s to eliminate CFCs. Today, a number of NGOs are heavily engaged with corporates on a range of fronts. It might not mean photo stunts and campaign actions, but it’s still campaigning.
    All the best,
    Steven Buckley
    Christian Aid

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