Thoughts on campaigning and where the dodo got it wrong

The dodo was pretty much doing fine until the Dutch arrived on Mauritius. Kodak was an iconic brand until floored by disruptive technology.

In evolutionary terms, there’s no such thing as a ‘best strategy’, it is context-defined. There’s no law that says organisations at the top of their game stay there; more likely the opposite.

And in the world of campaigning, a set of social, technological and political trends are calling into question some of the basic ways that NGOs typically operate.

NGOs have always had to wrestle with the tension of trying to make campaigns ‘manageable’ in the context that social change can be hugely complex, often unpredictable, and highly difficult to control or steer.

This isn’t new. Many of the key moments in the civil rights movement for example – from the Freedom Rides to the sit ins – were spontaneous reactions, decentralised initiatives, ‘unplanned’ moments. Major campaigns over past years have pivoted on, or otherwise benefitted from, uncertainty and chance: from the ‘Frankenfood’ frenzy around GM to the unexpected turns the landmines campaign took on the way to the treaty ban.

But in more recent years, key external trends – notably developments in social media – have increased the significance and resonance of these dynamics, creating conditions of greater volatility and unpredictability (for example by speeding up information flows and exponentially amplifying the spread of ideas, offering enhanced possibility to make and exploit new and unusual connections).

At the same time, social media offers opportunity for a radically different response (such as flatter, quicker and more decentralised ways of working, favouring more loosely structured entities).

‘Barriers to entry’ have been radically reduced, as was quintessentially shown by the #Spartacus social-media-led mobilisation around and crowdsourced analysis of the proposed changes to Disability Living Allowance.

Politically, it’s no great insight that representative democracy is in malaise, for all kinds of reasons. The thousands of hours spent influencing the Copenhagen Climate Change COP15 negotiations when the final ‘accord’ effectively sidestepped the entire process is one example of how taking representative democracy at face value doesn’t always work.

But the NGOs’ campaign ‘offer’ is often still predicated on change through representative advocacy. In this model we as supporters can often be two steps from the action, our efforts mediated first through the NGO and then the decision-making target. New movements such as Occupy operate to a different – and more compelling – paradigm: people looking for solutions in their own hands. Obviously it’s horses for courses, and there are pros and cons of different approaches, but the rebalancing from ‘representative’ to ‘participative’ democracy clearly points to new ways of thinking about change.

Faced with these trends, NGOs’ internal dynamics typically pull in the opposite direction.

One reason for this is that campaigning in more recent years has typically moved from the margins of organisations to being more centrally embedded.

There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it can introduce problematic implications – including an increased desire to retain organisational control of messages and channels of distribution, and a greater tendency towards brand-heavy approaches (linked to the perceived need to show, and show credit for, ‘results’). In practice, integration of campaigning and marketing is often weakly strategised and poorly implemented.

Consequences of this can include that NGOs in their campaigning pursue simplistic/meaningless goals for profile purposes, and/or impose artificial internal timescales onto campaigns. There is a greater tendency too for NGOs to require (in often ill-thought-through ways) campaigns to demonstrate ‘value for money’. In some cases, NGOs are additionally hampered by over-reliance on statutory funding, or are too wedded to insider approaches that can veer towards cooption

And so the worry is not only that NGOs are finding themselves in the wrong campaigning space, it’s their inability to adapt – in this case particularly difficult given that radical change may well be required.

In more recent years, new campaigning forms and movements have emerged, from Avaaz to UK Uncut to MoveYourMoney. The new groups are themselves hugely diverse, but have in common that they are responses to the new reality. In combination, they are introducing fundamental changes to the overall landscape of campaigning, bringing challenges but particularly opportunities in their wake.

The NGO campaigning sector is not a monolith and many NGOs are alert to trends, some working effectively with the new movements and evolving new ways of working, and/or already operating to more adaptive models. Campaigners themselves are certainly aware of the shifts in context and implications for ways of working.

But these are organisation-wide questions and there remains a paramount need for  the NGO sector both (a) to adapt in ways that allow for greater internal campaigning effectiveness, and (b) to link up more effectively with, and support and be supported by, the new campaigning movements.

This is likely to require tough choices, addressing some of the trade-offs involved in a meaningful response, rather than simply imagining that business as usual (only with more of everything) is a viable route forward.


A growing group of people, loosely encouraged by myself, Liam Barrington Bush and others, have been discussing ideas around the changing nature of campaigning, and the implications for the campaigning sector (in a broad sense). This post is an attempt to set out (my version of) some of the faultlines. Anyone interested in hearing more should get in touch or join the discussion using hashtag #socialchangeV2 @jim_coe


One Comment

  1. Natasha Adams says:

    Thanks Jim,

    I think this is a really interesting piece. I’ve been considering this problem myself for a long time. I took on the job I currently have as Activism Officer at a development NGO, to work on building much more personal engagement with supporters in campaigning. Although our approach is still currently to give campaign messages to our supporters & encourage them to act in ways we suggest, I am working to build in as much choice & proper engagement with our campaigners as possible. It’s a long way from perfect, but its a start I think.

    In my last job, I came across the Finding Frames ( report & followed lots of the Common Cause ( approach meetings & discussions. The Common Cause approach suggests that in order to embed positive values in the way our societies work (the goal of much campaigning), campaigns need to be organised in a way that embodies these values. As the Common Cause website states
    “To build a more sustainable, equitable and democratic world, we need an empowered, connected and durable movement of citizens.”

    In this context, NGO hierarchy is a significant blockage. By spoon-feeding campaigners our messages & the same old theory of change, going through existing power structures, it is hard to see how we can achieve the paradigm shift we need to achieve the progressive goals we want.

    But I think there is room for hope too. I helped to organise a recent ‘Building Activist Networks’ meeting ( at which we discussed the very things you highlight in your piece – the changing nature of the campaigning sphere, and how NGOs can better support grassroots campaigning. The overwhelming consensus from the meeting was that we should be working towards movement building, rather than campaigning in silos. The problem is finding resource and time, but the will is there & I’m hoping to get involved in some movement building work co-operating with others.

    Most NGO supporters are on many contact lists, & campaigners tend to support particular issues and causes rather than whatever an institution offers them through loyalty to that institution. If NGOs start to recognise that & work to support grassroots movements, I think we could find a way forwards.



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