What all campaigners can learn from The Canary Craftivists

I’ve written before about the work of Sarah Corbett and the Craftivist Collective – I really admire the commitment to principles of gentle protest and the level of thoughtfulness that’s goes into the approach. In my view, while it’s easily dismissed by some it’s a unique but vital form of campaigning.

The movement’s most recent campaign, Canary Craftivists, appeared on my social media timeline throughout 2021, and I think it was one of the most interesting and original pieces of activism that I’ve seen for a while.

One of the benefits of being a patron of the Craftivist Collective (and I’d really recommend becoming a patron, for £10 per month you are supporting this important campaigning ) is that I recently got sent a copy of the #CanaryCraftivists Manual – which is a beautifully curated guide on how to run the campaign. Even if you’re not into crafting I’d really encourage getting hold of a copy as it brilliantly unpacks the Craftivist approach.

As Sarah explains the idea behind the approach was two-fold for “participants 1) organise a small gathering of craftivists as a ‘flock’ to hold a stitch-in by a loved local landmark and invite the local press to cover it and 2) handcraft a life-size canary and a personal letter for their local politician or other local powerholders urging them to do more and faster for the environment“.

During 2021, the reach of the campaign was really impressive, especially when you consider that it’s driven by a one-person team at the center of the Craftivist network – with 99 flocks came together across the UK, securing lots of local media coverage, seeing canaries sent to almost 200 MPs and achieving stacks of reach on social media.

And I think there are lessons that all campaigners can learn from the success of Canary Craftivists, here are just a few;

  1. Take time to find a tribe (or flock) – it’s easy to focus on finding individuals that are interested in the same issue or cause as you and mobilise them for action -that’s important. But what Sarah has done with Craftivism is take an alternative approach, find those with another interest (craft) and then invite them to get involved in acvitism – in a way that appeals to their existing interests, and it totally designed to help individuals to .

    As Micah Sifry wrote in his newsletter last week – we know individuals are more likely to get involved in activism for a cause when the following 3 conditions are achieved “First, they have to experience a direct, personal contact, through their social networks, to a movement organization. Second, they need to be at a moment in their lives where they are open to a personal change. This is what sociologist Douglas McAdam called “biographical availability.” And third, they have to actually participate in some form of initial activism—a rally, protest, meeting, counseling session or the like—which they enjoy and decide to continue doing”. It strikes me that the model of Canary Craftivism certainly achieves 1 and 3.

  2. Really think about the visuals and the asthetic – if your wondering about why a canary – the campaign took inspiration from yellow canaries because they are small and sensitive little birds yet in the past they quietly helped warn miners of dangerous pollutants such as carbon monoxide with miners. In the same way, the Canary Craftivists hope that their little canaries and local demonstrations will gently warn and help remind their politicians and governments about the urgent dangers of global warming.

    And it’s that level of thinking and detail that marks out this approach – sure, perhaps a canary doesn’t immediately make you think about climate and the environment, but spend a little time and it’s excellent connection, whatsmore it makes for great images and content that individuals want to share with others on social media.

    I know I’m guilty of not spending enough time thinking about how decisions about design and visuals impact my campaign approaches, but in a world where great images and visual content can stand out, there is something in this for all campaigners.

  1. Obsessively focus on the local – The campaign encouraging small gatherings (or flocks) to come together to meet and craft in loved and recognisable locations – using those gatherings both as an opportunity to generate local media coverage for the campaign – an important route to reaching local MPs – the target, but also the opportunity to connect with others in the local community who shared the same interests.

    As campaigners, we can often thinking about building up to a central moment or gathering, but the local flock approach clearly really worked – drawing in many who might have rejected getting involved with other forms of activism, and developing a model that was perfect for our socially distanced times.

Plan for your engagement with decision makers to be both memorable and thoughtful – each individual was encouraged to take the time to handstich and name a canary and send it to their local MP.

We know that every day MPs will receive hundreds of pieces of correspondence, from email, to letters to phone calls so the canarys really got noticed. The feedback from MP suggested that the carefully and thoughtfully stitched canary complete with letter will cause them to pause and not just respond with a pre-written response.

In few campaigns that I seen have seen such a stream of such considered correspondence from MPs and their staff who have recieved their canaries as exampled below – as another MP wrote ‘my whole team were awed by the kindness and the effort that you put in‘.

It’s evidence for a hunch that I think most campaigners hold – that MPs are more likely to engage for longer with something that has taken time for the sender to put together with thought – a reminder that with a bit of careful thought you can come up with a campaign idea that really makes a lasting impression.

If you want to support more amazing activism from the Craftivist Collective you can find out more about becoming a patron here.

The Road Ahead for Campaigners

The annual NCVO Road Ahead report is a great resource – packed full of insight and predictions about the trends, drivers challenges, and opportunities that are going to shape the next year might look like for charities – it’s basically a ready-made PEST analysis for the charity sector.

The 2022 edition was launched earlier this week (this is a great summary from the report’s author Alex), and I thought I’d pull out 7 key trends that I think are particularly important for campaigners and change-makers, but I’d 100% encourage a read of the whole report as its packed full of useful insight, examples and case studies.

  1. A period of political stability – the authors might be regretting writing this given the political drama of the last 72 hours! But after the snap elections in 2017 and 2019, most predicted that we could be entering a a period of relative political stability, with an election most likely in 2024 (or 2023).

    It means campaigners should be starting to think now about how they plan their influencing activity – as I wrote ahead of the 2015 election, decisions about elections are made month or years in advance so start to plan now and not when the election is called. But I guess whatever happens with the Prime Minister in the next few weeks, shows the importance of being able to plan ahead, but also adapt to changing circumstances.

  2. The continuation of a culture war – or at the very least some who want to continue it, with the authors predicting that ‘Politicians are likely to continue to seek dividing lines where they feel there is political advantage in doing so, so we should expect that culture wars will be a part of our political environment in the years ahead‘. Although the polling suggest that the public is more split on the topic that the politicans might want, but as Bobby Duffy has written ‘the huge surge in media coverage of culture wars – in 2015, there were only 21 articles in mainstream UK newspapers that discussed a “culture war” in the UK – in 2020, there were 534’ shows that topic isn’t going away.

  3. Devolution – the continued growth in the profile and role of Metro Mayors (remembering that 41% of the UK population now have a Metro Mayors) and the continued promince of the devolved adminstrations that has come about beause of the pandemic (this is a great thread by Andy Glyde from CRUK about the important for national charities in how they approach devolution and how they should be influencing the devolved governments). As the report says ‘charities that aren’t considering the local and regional landscape, and the decision-makers within it, are likely to be missing opportunities to further their cause.’

  4. Restrictions in the space for campaigning – timely this week with the defeat in the Lords of part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, but expect some of the elements of that which seek to, amoungst other things, introduces new powers allowing police to decide where, when and how people can protest and increases penalties for those breaching police conditions on protest.

    It’s been great to see so many organisations come out against the Bill, but whatever your campaigning approach standing and challenging the Bill which the report says will limit what is ‘a fundamental tool for democratic expression and social transformation’ is going to be vital as it passes back to the House of Commons.

    Likewise the Elections Bill might not sound relevant to many campaigners, but as this briefing from Friends of the Earth notes it again has clauses that should concern all those involved in social change.

  5. Pressure on household finances – I think this economic driver is likely to be one of the political challenge of the year. It’s most pronounced now with the rise in fuel prices, and the latest figures on the cost of living (inflation), and as such its going to dominate the media and political agenda, as well as being a cause of concern for many in society.

    Savvy campaigners are going to need to think about how they can adjust their messaging and approach to adapt to this issue which is likely to repeatedly dominate politics.

  6. Changing volunteering patterns – the report finds that during the pandemic ‘those over 16 years old who volunteered at least once a month for a formal organisation fell to 17% from 23% in 2019/20, and those who volunteered at least once a year decreased to 30% from 37%’ but at the same time as Relationships Foundation has found we’ve seen new forms of community volunteering emerge during the pandemic, with 9 million people stepping forward to help.

    As we potentially return to some sense of normal how these volunteering trends unravel will be fascinating to follow for any campaigning charity that relies on volunteers to lead much of it local campaigning activity. At the same time, as the report finds the changing face of work, could present new opportunities with more people working flexibily or from home changing how they can engage.

  7. Increase in regulation of social media – the report suggest that ‘governments are starting to take the regulation of social media platforms more seriously. There are concerns about how platforms push and curate news to users and how this can spread fake news and malicious content with alarming speed’.

    While changes might not immeditely impact campaigners given the important role that social media can play for charities in desiminating messages, changes to how platforms operate can have significant consequences. Those campaigns that have a distributed approach to how they share their campaign content are more likely to be able to ride out any change (forced or planned) to the algorthms.

A brief typology of corporate campaigning

I’ve been thinking a little about different models and approaches to campaigning towards companies and corporate targets over the last few months, and as part of that came up with this short typology.

It’s not complete, so I’d welcome additions in the comments below to add to it, and h/t to my colleagues Andrew and Rachael who contributed to this;

  • Consumer pressure – When a consumers or customers are encouraged to take action directly to a company to account for their actions. Lots and lots of examples of this – some focusing on getting consumers of a specific brand to take action, others focused on mobilising those concerned about an issue. The Tearfund’s ‘This is a Rubbish Campaign‘ is an example of this – I love the idea of getting supporters to send their single-use plastic bottles back to Coca Cola. Lots of the campaigning that platform Sum of Us have traditionally done would be another example.
  • Adbusting – use of art to subvert a well-known brand to highlight the hypocracy of their actions. I’ve seen lots of this happening in the climate space at the moment (see photo at top of article) trying to put the spotlight on the greenwashing of so many travel firms around climate.
  • ‘Social license’ campaigns – when the focus is on getting institutions (often in the cultural, academic or sporting space) to walk away from bad corporates and remove the . For example BP or not BP –which has put pressure the Royal Shakespear Company and the British Museum to drop BP as a sponsor, or the focus on removing gambling brands from football shirts.
  • Campaign partnerships – when a corporate uses its platform to ask consumers to take to engage the public on an issue – this can be on a wider issue (see Ben and Jerry’s on refugees) or on a specific benefit to the brand (see Uber and City Hall in London). Lots more on this as a theme here.
  • Ratings and rankings – A well used approach – publishing lists of corporates and their performance based on a set of criteria. The aim being that corporates will want to be driven to move up the rankings or stay at the top – see this from a Australian charity, Baptist World Aid on clothing companies, or this from Oxfam and their Behind the Brands campaign on food companies.
  • Shareholder pressure – buying shares and using them to push for change at AGMs/through resolutions. Share Action are absolutely brilliant at doing this and have a track record of success over many years.
  • Direct action – preventing the operations of a corporate by actively disrupting their supply chain/distribution network.
  • Product boycott – a boycott of a specific product or service, see the Nestle boycott that started in 1977 for it’s aggressive marketing of baby foods around the world in breach of international marketing standards and continues today. Also buycotts (h/t Pete Moorey) using consumer buying power to shift markets – for example the Which? Big Switch in 2021 on energy.
  • Advertiser pressue – targeting those who advertise in media outlets (papers, blogs, etc) or online, and encouraging supporters to ask advertisers to remove their adverts from those outlets or sites. This is an approach so Stop Funding Hate have used effectively in recent years. Closely linked to ‘social licence’ campaigns.
  • Employee pressure – Directly working with employees to put pressure on their bosses to change policies. See Amazon employees on climate and more here. Also working through unions to put pressure on their employers – see this with Civil Servants opposing the current Home Secretary on Channel crossings.
  • Leverage – When you campaign against decision maker A in order to target company B. Examples are usually economic boycotts like divestment campaigns, ‘banks: don’t finance fossil fuels’ etc. But there’s other types that aren’t really captured in that. For example, in the past Unite the Union got the Conservatives to threaten BA with a Heathrow landing slot review if they didn’t roll back their fire-and-rehire plans, and it’s a tactic their new General Secretary, Sharon Graham, wants to do more of (see below)

And some great examples being shared on social media to grow this list;

  • Recruitment pressure – suggested by Ben in the comments below. Targeting a company’s stand at a recruitment fair to say why they’d look embarrassing on your cv one day, or asking venues such as universities not to invite particular companies – a good recent example of that at work here for Shell.
  • Legal action – suggest by Pete and Claire on Twitter. Bringing cases through the courts to hold companies accountable for their actions. This example of using UK court to make UK registered tobacco companies accountable for their actions in Malawi.
  • Regulatory action – getting the government to create new frameworks to operate – a systematic way to make change as doesn’t require convincing each company in turn to change, and important when reputation is less connected to share value. (also suggested by Pete and Claire on Twitter)

So that’s 11 15 ideas, but I’d really welcome more – please do comment below and I’ll add to this over time 👇👇👇👇👇

How stunts can amplify your campaign message

Earlier this month, working with the Crack the Crises coalition, I was in Cornwall for the G7. 

Around Falmouth, where the G7 media center was located, at times it felt like you were at a festival of activism, with dozens of causes and campaigns looking to get coverage for their issues, and given the COVID restrictions more so than at previous G7 lots of these were through photo stunts (see a good collection here).

Across the weekend of the summit, as the Crack the Crises coalition, we organised for a blimp of Boris and Joe Biden to float in the Harbour, and for members of the coalition and the local community to hold a Vigil to remember the 3.7 million people globally who had lost their lives due to COVID.

So it got me thinking about the role of and use of stunts as a campaign approach.

Over the weekend of the summit I saw how what I’m calling the ‘summit stunt cycle’ can work itself ou. Given you can’t actually advocate directly to decision-makers at the G7, so much of the influencing that happens during a summit like the G7 through the media – those running the summit, in this case, the UK government, want to use the media to portray the summit as a success – ‘look we’ve got leaders to donate 1 bn vaccines’, while those of us on the outside want to suggest otherwise – ‘a huge disappointment and a missed opportunity‘.

And that’s where stunts can be really helpful.

They provide an opportunity to get the media interested in your message or perspective, by providing a hook for a photo or a conversation with a journalist, which can lead media interviews, which can lead to help set expectations for what ‘success’ from the summit would look like, causing your target to respond – hopefully by raising ambition – and so you get to go round the cycle again.

Perhaps the G7 is a unique summit, but the reality is that photo moments or stunts can be a useful tool for campaigners, so here are 5 top reflections on what makes a successful summit stunt;

1. Be informed by the official agenda – it’s very hard to drive a news cycle at a Summit as so much of it is dominated by what’s on the official agenda – so think about how your stunt can add to that. One organisation, Oxfam, has done this absolutely brilliantly for the last 15 years.

Since 2005, they’ve been taking their Big Heads of G7 leaders to summit after summit and serving up brilliant photo after brilliant photo. So this G7 the focus was going to be focused on vaccines and climate – so that’s what the Oxfam stunts were about. Perfectly providing a picture – and an alternative message – to what the government wanted the message to be.

2. A good stunt is simple – the adage that a ‘picture paints a thousand words’ is so true when it comes to stunts. It can be really easy to over think or overcomplicated – something that sounds great in a brainstorm but doesn’t translate into a stunt. And the reality is that if you build on the ‘summit stunt cycle’ you don’t want to overthink it.

How much did a giant blimp of Boris and Biden actually have to do with vaccines or climate? Not that much, but perhaps it didn’t matter – it said ‘these are the leaders that matter and we need them to do more than just turn up for it to be a successful meeting’

3. Plan to fill the quieter moments – There are hours of coverage at a summit that need to be filled by journalist and broadcasts, perhaps even more so in the days of live blogs and 24-hour news – and only so many photos of leaders on a beach, at a BBQ or around a table.

Don’t plan to do your stunt when it’ll be clashing with leaders press conferences, but do think about early in the morning, or in the evening, when the official agenda is quieter. 

We got the media out on a press boat at 8am and got lots of coverage for the blimp just because nothing else was happening at the Summit. The Vigil we held was at the end of the day and ran on many news channels over the whole night, as it was one of the last images from the summit that day.

4. Be adaptable – this is why I’m so in awe of the Big Heads because they can easily be reused to work for the moment. The dynamics of the summit can change across a weekend, so planning a stunt for the final day which can’t be easily adapted is risking the summit staying on track – having something more adaptable means as the summit goes on your can help to adjust your approach to feed into that summit stunt cycle.

But you also need to accept that not every stunt will get coverage– but as with much campaigning, it’s better to try and not succeed than not try and wish you had.

5. Work together – Good stunts work because they bring everyone together, you need media colleagues to get out and sell it in to the media, you need spokespeople who are preapred to do endless interviews to share the message, you need social media colleagues to push the idea out on your own channels, and you want to work with event experts to make – it’s a perfect example of when campaigners need to be the glue to hold it all.

When Companies Campaign – part 2

This isn’t a new trend (indeed I’ve written about it before – something I only realised on completing this post)- but over the last few months I’ve stumbled more and more articles and examples of companies using campaign tactics and approaches – so it felt like it was time for a quick post! 

Here are four approaches to corporate campaigning I’ve spotted – can you add more or share other examples?  

1. Activist CEO – where corporate leaders decided to put their brand behind issues. This seems to have entered a new chapter in the last year, especially in the US where they’ve been active in supporting #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and most recently to challenge legislation that will make it harder to vote.

Look at the UK and you can see how Tim Martin, the CEO of Weatherspoons has put his pub chain at the front of campaigning on both Brexit (he was for it) and lockdown (he’s against it). 

As this article from the Economist points out normally companies  ‘put their faith in paid lobbyists and used industry groups like the Business Roundtable to campaign on their behalf. The lobbying concerned almost exclusively matters of direct concern to their bottom lines, such as taxes, regulations or immigration policies that might affect their employees’ but  that’s clearly changing.

This report from Phone2 Action argues that corporate activism is now a market expectation suggests that ‘more than three out of four consumers (79 percent) expect companies to engage on political and social issues’ so we can expect to see more of this in the coming years. 

2. Product based campaigning – I’ve written before about Apptivism – where app-based platforms like Uber use their technology to invite users to take action to challenge decision-makers who they perceive are preventing them and their customers from getting what they want, or in the US encouraging people to vote a particular way in referendums.

It seems to work well as an approach for ‘challenger’ brands like Uber which have got a strong or loyal customer base – I guess if you’re going with this approach you’ve got to confident that consumers will back your positions.

Another example is the photo below that my colleague spotted on the side of his Oatly carton – focused on challenging EU guidance on labeling on milk substitutes.

3. Community Organising this brilliant paper by Luke Yates at Manchester University provides an in-depth look at how Airbnb has used community organising approaches to build a network of Home Sharing Clubs to help to bring together specific members of their community to build power to influence local officials. The paper outlines how Airbnb explicitly uses community organising approaches, like one-to-ones to move members up the mobilisation curve.

It also explores how other companies, like Uber, Lyft and Lime are using the same techniques, creating effectively a whole industry of corporate grassroots lobbying which is able to draw in those who have party political or more traditional community organising experience, and then use those approaches for their corporate benefit. Feels like an approach we’ll see more of.

4. Activist Brands – some companies have always had activism is woven into their DNA, perhaps the most notable one is the clothing company, Patagonia, whose CEO talks about how ‘we used to be a company that supported activists, and now we are more of an activist company’, and its Patagonia Action Network has been active for 40+ years at distributing funding to support environmental activism, but also showcases activism in its stores and actively promotes its activist positions as central to its approach (see more on that in this great article).

Ice Cream brand Ben and Jerry’s would be another example, using its brand (and packaging) to support work on refugees – although it’s also been challenged to stop sales in illegal Israeli settlements and publicly oppose Israel’s occupation.

Cosmetic companies Lush and Body Shop would be other examples in the UK – with Lush for example featuring campaigns in their stores.

Campaigning and the Church

It’s been a few years since I worked for a charity directly linked to the church – but because I’ve worked for Christian Aid and Tearfund – and as I’ve always tried to be open that my Christian faith has always been an important part of my motivation as a campaigner – I often get drawn into conversations and discussions by those seeking to understand a little more about how to engage churches in their campaigning.

I’ve had a few of those over the last month, so thought it useful to write a few reflections – that are by necessity, broad, on churches and campaigning – which might be useful to others.

  1. Go behind the ‘church attendance is down’ headline – it is, and that’s not news, the reality is that overall church attendance has fallen dramatically over the last few decades, but behind that overall trend is a much more complicated picture. 

Attendance at some denominations (like Methodist or United Reformed Church) that have often put social justice at the heart of their mission, appears to be declining faster – with some predicting that some denominations will be very small in a few decades if rates of decline continue. 

However there are other pockets of the church where numbers attending are growing – see for example the growth of the Catholic Church in London as an example of this, which has seen growth as a result of immigration into the city, or the continued growth of pentecostal and evangelical churches in urban areas across the country (including some growth in attendance at Church of England services in London – see graph (which is a few years old)).

Resurrection? | The Economist


So the story is more complicated and nuanced than the headlines would have you understand, but often much of that growth is centered in more urban areas, and that’s having an impact on where churches can be engaged in campaigning.

2. Understand the structures you’re navigating – as with any institution, most churches are part of a formal national structure – understanding it will help you to navigate it, but it’s useful to be aware that the overall decline in church attendance is putting pressures on those structures.  

For example, many vicars in the Church of England have multiple congregations or churches that they’re now responsible for. As attendance numbers have fallen, and the resulting impact on budgets – remember churches are mostly reliant on individuals contributions from congregation members, fundraising, and sometimes income that comes from investments or property – so bringing groups of churches together has been a viable financial approach. 

Just keeping the local church going is a rewarding, but often exhausting, vocation for those in local church leadership. It does mean that there isn’t an interest in campaigning or social justic causes, it’s just that the reality of local ministry with its many competing demands. That was before the impact of COVID, and the fact that many congregations haven’t been able to gather in person for much of the last 12 month which no doubt    

3. Don’t assume that just because you’ve got someone at the top involved means it’ll be a success – different churches have different relationships with authority and hierarch – indeed much of church history and the emergence of new denominations is arguably about difference over that, and like any organisation understanding it will help you to navigate it. 

Too often I’ve found colleagues who think that getting a Bishop (a senior role in both the Church of England and Catholic Church) onboard is enough – only to be disappointed. It certainly helps, but it probably doesn’t unlock as much as you might like. Also, be aware that churches often work on long timetables. Want them to get involved in your cause – plan months ahead if you can, and check the church calendar as well – your plan for a really important event on the Easter weekend is probably not going to get a fair consideration! 

4. Churches are about the communities they serve – I don’t have any data for it (although I suspect some readers of this blog would be able to point me towards it), but my hunch would be that during periods where levels of poverty and inequality in the UK are rising, then you’ll see a corresponding increase in the churches setting up projects and activities in the communities that they serve. 

In many communities, local churches (along with other faith groups) are a key player in organising the local food bank, debt advice service, shelter for the homeless, or the local refugee welcome group. Churches are about the community they serve  – but again it can mean the ‘bandwidth’ to connect on other topics or issues can be reduced, or approaches need to be made that connect with what is happening in a community.

5. Don’t be scared of evangelicals– most evangelical churches in the UK aren’t anything like what you might see on TV coming from America. Indeed, I’d argue that one of the stories of the last few decades is how much the evangelical ‘wing’ of the church has rediscovered its interest in social justice and the need for engagement in politics – I say rediscover because many social reformers identified as evangelicals, but that’s a whole theological PhD!

Go into most evangelical churches and you’ll find a commitment to action on the climate, fair trade, poverty, and other issues. You might find you don’t agree on everything – but good campaigning is often about building a coalition that is broader. Approach ready for a conversation to find the common ground, while accepting that there is something that your not going to agree on.

6. Churches like to work together – look around for the existing relationships, they might be through charities or organisations that have a long connection working on an issue – many of the campaigning organisations that we see around us have roots in churches, for example, the Children Society or Trussel Trust were both founded with links to the church.

With each other, often through local platforms like Churches Together groups which have often take a role at organising local election hustings (but like many other bodies in the church struggling to find volunteers), and with other faith groups – through interfaith platforms.

Working through those relationships and partnerships is important so approaching your work with that same emphasis on working together is a important place to start. 

7. The church is made up of people – so like any other charity or organisation, it can experience many of the same challenges and opportunities that other charities and voluntary organisations face. Congregational giving will often be squeezed if the overall economy is shrinking and individuals feel they’ve got to save, and like many charities finding volunteers to replace those who are choosing to step back or retire as they get older is a challenge that many churches also face.

Oh, and don’t expect everyone to hold the same view or opinion – indeed in many churches, you’ll find that the very opposite, a community of individuals united by the same faith, but politely disagreeing on much else.

Using Freedom of Information as a campaign tool

I’m running a session later today at the Campaign Bootcamp Communities of Resistance conference on using Freedom of Information (FoI) as a campaigning tool.

This post is a summary of the session, with links to a few useful resources. The slides from the session are below and can be viewed here.

While Whitehall has grown more hostile to FoI requests – Tony Blair famously said it was one of the biggest mistakes he had from his time in government – if used effectively it can still be a useful tool for campaigners.

As a reminder, Freedom of Information isn’t a tool you need to be a legal expert to use, it’s designed to be used to everyone, which means;

  1. You can use it to ask for any recorded information held by or on behalf of any authority.
  2. Applies to all public authorities – national and local. The list of who you can make a request to is really comprehensive.
  3. You need to make a request in writing, but sites like https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/ can really help.
  4. Requests are free to make – but there are limits on how much time any authority has to spend in its response to you.
  5. You don’t have to explain why you’re making a request.
  6. You should get an answer in 20 days – but the reality is that the time scale is longer.
  7. You can specify the format you want to get the information in.
  8. There are some grounds when your request might be turned down.

There is lots more on how to make requests in this guide from the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

And looking around there are lots of ways that campaigning organisations are using Freedom of Information. Here is a helpful typology of approaches, although I’m sure I’m missing some – so please do add in the comments below;

Opposition ResearchFind out what your opponent is doing – it could be to identify who they’re meeting with, access records of relevant meetings or documents. See this from Greenpeace.
Policy ReportCollect information from a range of targets/institutions to create a data set that you can use in a policy report, for example see here.
Media StoryCreate a headline figure for your press release to support your campaign aims – can also use a refusal to provide a FoI to make a media story. See this from my colleagues at Save the Children.
Fact CheckerBuild evidence to challenge or refute arguments that are regularly used against your campaign – for example here on a story on low traffic neighbourhoods.
Campaign EvaluationUnderstand how your target has responded to your campaign – to identify how many actions received, or how they decided to respond to your requests. 
IntrigueTo get answers to questions that intrigue you – who knows what you might discover.

If you’re looking to make a request I’d strongly recommend using whatdotheyknow.com, but here are some useful tips for making your request.

  1. Check first – if the information has been previously released under Freedom of Information publication scheme.
  2. Be concise – remember you can be turned down if you ask for too much information.
  3. Be clear – don’t use acronyms or jargon – the official responding might not be an expert.
  4. Be focused – provide details of date ranges or specific departments/individuals you’re interested in.

Finally, if you’re looking for more resources I’d recommend;

Organising during Lockdown – some reflections from the last year

It’s about a year since we all went into lockdown here in the UK – an anniversary that coincides with about the same period of time we’ve been putting organising at the heart of our campaigning approach at Save the Children UK. 

As I wrote last January, the addition of organising alongside campaigning in our organogram was about a deliberate intention to move ourselves as Save the Children to focus much more on building the power of others in our campaigning approach – than simply focusing on mobilisation that perhaps we’d most comfortably focused on for much of the last decade. 

And no sooner that we got started, many of the plans and intentions that we had for our organising work had to adapt – as it was clearly not going to be possible that a vision of getting out and about to meet with those who wanted to connect with our cause, or traveling up and down the country to build leaders, all had to move online.

So as we’ve come to the end of a year of lockdown – it’s been a useful moment to take a step back and reflect on our organising journey over the last 12 months, and ask what I’ve learned from that.

So what’s worked and not worked? 

1. It’s put organising as the first thing on the list – We started last year with a couple of organising programmes going, but we now have so much more- a new programme now piloting working with students, some amazing work with parent campaigners – building on the brilliant Mums on a Mission community – which is at the heart of our work on UK child poverty, exploring work with diaspora communities after a number of years of ad-hoc work, and a more active network of Campaign Champions – our core organising role for those who want to stand with us for child rights that at any point in my time at Save the Children.

It feels like the decision to put organising at the heart of our work, has I think helped to remind us that this is core to the campaigning we’re looking to do – something to think about first, not something to add on. 

2. It’s transformed our engagement – driven by lockdown, but going digitial has totally changed who from our networks has been able to get involved. Before lockdown, despite recognising it, we were frankly too London centric.

Training days would typically happen near our London offices, but by moving everything to digital has removed that overnight – and as we’ve all grown more used to catching up with friends and family on digital platforms- so attendance at many of our online sessions has ballooned. 

But that’s not been without challenges, for some of those we’ve been working with, especially through our parent’s campaigning programme, access to digital devices or data has been a barrier, and we’ve not been as quick as we can be to resolve that. 

3. We’ve seen the community grow and leaders develop –  If the heart of what we’re trying to do is ‘build power’ through the leadership of others, then across the year I’ve seen lots of that starting to happen – individuals want to step up and take on responsibility.

But it’s also interesting that when I talk with colleagues I think that people still find the idea of being a ‘leader’ as something that fits a little uncomfortably, that they’re excited to be invited to step up to do the work and to given space to develop, but not sure about the label we put on that. 

4. It’s (obviously) been tough to do none of this ‘in person’ – sure we’ve seen lots of benefits from being able to digital, but there is still something that’s lost from not being able to have a chat over a cup of tea in the fringes of a meeting, or being able to celebrate with a high-5 or simillar.

The future might be more online, but it’s not going to be able to replace the fact that growing leaders is about connecting in person. 

5. It’s allowed decision-makers to decide who they want to meet with – we’ve had some amazing doors open for us in the last 12 months, with more people getting involved and taking to Zoom to meet with their MPs or directly with officials, but the big change has been that it’s further allowed decision makers to be the gatekeeper on who they do and don’t meet with – and that depends on both the interest in the topic or often just how organised their office is.

Gone have been many of the more informal spaces that you can use, or the formal mechanisms like pitching up in Westminster to ‘green card’ your MP. In the long run I’m not sure this healthy for how we engage with our decision makers – as I suspect they won’t be enthusiastic about returning to how it used to be.

The same for media, now little happens in the studio, it’s much easier to get a leader you’ve been working with to share what they’re doing as opposed to someone from our organisation who can easily get to a ISDN line. 

6. You can’t stop telling the story – often, in conversation, one of my team will share the most amazing story of what one of our volunteer leaders has done, but it’s been really interesting how hard it’s been to translate that into indicators to share with the rest of the organisation – it’s amazing how strong the muscle memory is, pulling you in the ‘comfortable’ direction of what you’ve always done.

I’ve learned this year, that you can’t just make the pivot and then hope that everyone will behind what you’re doing. You’ve got to keep finding the stories of leaders, sharing those stories, putting them into context for others, reminding everyone why you’re doing this and explaining how this approach. Building power takes time, and often we can be impatient for quick results. 

Who knows what the next 12 months are going to hold – hopefully, we’ll soon be able to get out and about again, building an organising approach that allows us to mix the benefits we’ve seen from lockdown, but bringing in-person relationships back into the heart of what we’re doing. I’ll report back next March with some more reflections.

How do we measure if we're having an impact?

NoteI wrote this post on the excellent report when it first came out in March 2020, but posting it got delayed by lockdown, and since then sadly MobLab has had to close down – but although the context for some of our campaigning has changed, the themes in it feel as important as ever.

The team at Mobilisation Lab has done a huge service to the campaigning community, by bringing together the ‘Measuring People Power in 2020’ report that has surveyed 500+ changemakers to look at the metrics that they’re using in their campaigning, and it’s an important read for any campaign leader.

(full disclosure – I was involved in the advisory group for the report)

It’s full of takeaways but for me, one that it’s got me thinking about is how it’s time for us to drop the vanity metrics and really push into finding measures that capture the depth of our work.

We’ve known for years the limits of vanity metrics – which look at list size or page views – and focus on the breadth of activity happening, but can often have little bearing on the depth of our advocacy or the impact it’s happening,

But the report finds that most of us are still using them, with 91% of respondents saying they use them, and importantly for leaders, that as senior management we might be perpetuating this by suggesting an ongoing interest in focusing on them.

The report finds that others perceive there is only a moderate or small amount of support for measuring people power from senior leaders.

So if we’re to change that, we’ll need to be part of leading it. 

Now I know from my own personal experience, leading campaigning and organising work at Save the Children UK that’s it’s easy to get enthralled with vanity metrics – they’re easy to report on, stand up against similar figures that are presented by other colleagues and make you feel good when explaining them to the CEO – who doesn’t want to be able to report that the number of campaigners you’ve had sign your latest petition. 

But they’re limiting the story that we can tell about what it takes to create change and prevent us from doing the hard work that’s needed to find new measures of people power – of course, I’d love to be able to say that the report has found a single unifying metric that we can all use to explain the impact of our campaigning but we don’t have that.

So where do we go next?

‘The holy grail of people power is a measurement that captures (a) the breadth of a campaign or organization’s reach, (b) the depth of sustained supporter engagement and leadership, and (c) the impact these factors have on achieving the mission’.


Well helpfully the report has some thoughts about what we can do differently, and how we might be able to start to search for people power metrics that help to reflect the ‘The holy grail of people power is a measurement that captures (a) the breadth of a campaign or organization’s reach, (b) the depth of sustained supporter engagement and leadership, and (c) the impact these factors have on achieving the mission’.

1. We need to talk about power in our measurement – the focus of our work as campaigners is about change, a good day is when the work you’re doing comes together to win change, but how many of our metrics reflect this. Are they rooted in an understanding of power as something that is dynamic, that changes, and that needs to reflect the theories of change that we’re using? Are we adapting our measures to how our campaigns are seeing how change will happen?  

2. Look outside our organisations to learn from others – the report highlights how some organisation are experimenting with different approach to measuring people power, focusing more on the depth and impact of their movements, for example Friends of the Earth in the Netherlands on how they’ve moved to focus on measuring the leadership capacity within their movement.

Or some interesting literature coming out of academia looking at the evidence for the approaches that work – the report is full of useful snippets of insight from academics, for example, this work that finds that volume of contact might not be the most important way of influencing decision-makers, but the quality of contacts is. 

3. Make it playful and fun – there is a brilliant quote in the report from Rachel Collinson who says ‘a measure is good if it is precise, practical and playful’. That resonates as it’s easy to see our conversations on measurement feel like a chore at the end of the process, but how as leaders do we ensure that we supporting the creation of measures that bring joy to the process, as well as reflection. How do we draw from others who are using behaviour insight to create ways of capturing information and using measures that are fun.

4. Celebrate what we’re already doing – I’m sure many organsiations have already moved beyond vanity metrics, but when the report says that one in five recipients aren’t aware of any promising people power metric – perhaps we’ve not good at sharing what we’re doing. We perhaps feel a little fragile about sharing until their perfect, but as leaders how do we share our ‘work in progress’.

For example, I’m working on a project at the moment that’s looking to build local campaigning infrastructure using a composite metric to measure group health, in another area of our work we’re looking more at how we can measure the number of ‘youth-led’ advocacy initiatives, and with our fundraising colleagues, we’re looking at a lifetime value metric that tries to properly quantify the contribution that our supporters make via their campaigning action. It might not feel groundbreaking, but perhaps helpful to talk about more.  

(If anyone’s interested and based in the UK I’d be up for convening a session where we all bring our current ‘works in progress’ then get in touch via Twitter)

So lots to think about, and the report helps to start of more of a conversation about how we talk about and measure what’s working and not working. 

US Election tactics and strategies – approaches that might work in the UK context.

So we’ve got President Biden in the White House and a Senate controlled by the Democrats – the US election is truly over.

But, if you’re a political campaigner in the UK, you might want to think about what this could mean for May 2021 – when the Westminster government seems set to continue to push forward with many elections in England (and possibly Wales and Scotland), despite the pandemic.

It’s easy to look at the Presidential campaigns and how they’re run, but dive down the ballot, and you’ll find a bunch of candidates and state parties doing interesting and innovative work that is perhaps easy to replicate.

And with elections happening in May, and probably in similar conditions to the US, where the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic is going to force campaigners and candidates to adapt, it’s somewhere to learn from.

Here are a few to start from;

1. Stacey Abraham and her Georgia GOTV effort – Abraham’s who narrowly missed out on being elected Governor in 2018, has rightly been praised for building an election machine that helped to turn Georgia for the Democrats for the first time in over 30+ years, and then picked up two Senate seats earlier this month.

Her relentless efforts on driving voter registration and then GOTV across the state certainly flipped the state, indeed there was some suggestion her team was at the impromptu celebrations in Atlanta when President-elect Biden making sure everyone was registered, but it also showed the importance of investing in long-term plans to win.

If you want to find out more about Abraham’s this film is a good place to start, but the big lesson here is that if you want people to vote for you then they need to be registered – or have a look at her detailed game plan from 2019.

2. Beto O’Rourke and how he almost turned Texas blue – An similar story to Georgia, Beto who ran for Senate in 2018 has been running a commanding GOTV operation in the state. Those efforts saw him get some huge numbers turning up for his virtual phonebanks, which saw the campaign making over 2,000,000 calls on the day before the election – just thinking about organising that makes me come out in a cold sweat!

One of the keys seems to be bringing celebrity power to the phonebanks, so you can be dialing along with the stars. With lots of UK campaigns likely to be focused on phone banking in the coming months, it’s a good reminder that making hitting the dialler a fun community experience is going to be really important. If you’re interested, more on the campaign in Texas here.

3. Wisconsin State Democrats – another state which flipped back to the Democrats last week, and this short video is a good look at how the state party, led by former MoveOn.org campaign director, Ben Wikler, adapted to moving to a digital organising program in the middle of an election earlier in the year.

The big lesson I took from this film, and also following Ben on Twitter, is the importance of letting organisers use the channels that work for those that they’re looking to engage, that could be Facebook Live, Zoom or another platform. But it highlights the importance of distributed leadership with those who know their communities left to run the most appropriate strategy.

Another cool thing that I saw the Wisconsin party do was run these virtual reunion events which brought together the casts of shows like Princess Bride, which saw over 110,000 people donate to watch the cast reunite – campaigns need money, and in an age where many of the traditional approaches like fundraising dinners aren’t possible this looks smart (and fun) to me.

4. Ed Markey sees off a primary challenge – this isn’t about a victory in November, but back in the Primary season when the incumbent Senator for Massachusetts defeated Joe Kennedy III to secure the Democratic nomination. Markey has been an elected official for almost 40 years, but his long-standing support for climate action saw the Sunrise Movement support his campaign and it’s thousands of activists to help (and also produced this brilliant advert). More on the amazing operation of the Sunrise Movement here.

As this podcast explores, he won thanks to the work his organising team did to ensure that field and digital was totally integrated, and if you want to deep dive into what that looks like there are loads more lessons in this playbook that the team have shared which could be applied to lots of local races. I’d also really recommend a read of this over on Labour Society of Campaigners site.

5. People’s Action and Deep Canvassing – lots of the talk about the election was about the role relational organising would play in the campaign – but the team at People’s Action focused on Deep Canvassing – candid, two-way conversations where canvassers ask voters to share their relevant, emotionally significant experiences and reflect on them aloud – and showed through a study that this approach was 102 times more effective than traditional electioneering efforts aimed at persuading people to change their vote.

Now as Mark Pack rightly pointed out to me on Twitter there are some questions about if you can scale this given the time it takes for the conversations, but in tight and local races, there could be some value in this approach. One to explore further?