Leaving aside various other complications, you might say that you can judge a campaign a success if there is evidence of:
- A successful outcome
- A meaningful positive contribution to the outcome by the organisation/group/network whose campaign it is
Questions of contribution are important but if you can’t assess whether a campaign has been successful, then any insights about contribution are essentially made without any kind of context.
The obvious reponse is that you can judge success by asking, ‘were the campaign objectives achieved or not?’ And on the face of it, that seems a reasonable starting point.
But campaign objectives are not necessarily a trustworthy guide.
When I first started evaluating campaigns, 15 years back, the most common experience was to come across objectives that were absurdly ambitious, if they were stated at all. Campaigns generally anticipated the dismantling of global capitalism within a year or so.
Now it feels like the sector is swinging to the opposite extreme.
This is in response to the various pressures on campaigners that boil down to the need to show that campaigning is an investible proposition.
If it delivers results, it’s investible. And if it doesn’t, senior managers will look at different strategies, funders will look at other things to fund.
Not surprisingly, people are concluding that the best way to deliver results is to have easily deliverable results.
And so there is a growing trend in campaigning that (put crudely) involves:
- Determining what is definitely achievable (ideally with some input from the putative target about what kind of change would be acceptable to them), and then
- Setting that as the campaign objective, then
- Running a campaign with that objective, and then
- Achieving it.
Everyone wins. The campaign looks good because it has achieved what it set out to. The target looks good because they have been receptive, and because they then get public praise from the campaign for their actions. The organisation builds its brand and its reputation for success. The donor is happy because they have a result.
The only people perhaps not so happy are the communities whose benefit it is supposedly all directed towards, because they have potentially been shafted. But nobody’s accountable to them anyway, so that’s not really that important, it’s the funders and senior managers who are the stakeholders we need to worry about.
That’s a bit of a caricature of things, but from what I see it’s the direction of travel.
So this is a big strategic question for the sector in the coming years: how much is advocacy about systemic change, how much is it about pushing on (or walking through) half-open doors?
The risk is that campaign objectives become increasingly focused on policy change as a single course, and are detached from the idea that change comes through multiple pathways.
Challenging power dynamics and social norms in ways that change the environment in which policy is made are vital strategies for giving voice and influence to marginalised people, and for helping to ensure that change is sustainable.
But these things are not so easily or quickly winnable – and nobody wants to be associated with a campaign that doesn’t win.
Even in the policy domain, the focus will be on small wins, rearguard actions.
There’s nothing wrong with small victories. But there are different dimensions, and scales, and timescales, of change and if we end up with everyone setting thin objectives we’ll get thin change.*
Campaigning will become about change within the system not to the system, change-lite. Anything too difficult will be outside the NGO sector’s remit.
Everyone will be successful but it will just be a bit hard to tell what the actual difference is.
So as campaigners – and as funders, evaluators, supporters – we need to be very sceptical about campaign objectives.
Just because they’re called objectives doesn’t mean they are objective measures.
Objectives are political, like everything else in advocacy and campaigning. And we’re going to have to be increasingly careful about taking objectives, and claims of achievement, on face value.
* I’m drawing here explicitly from Michael Edwards’ analysis of Thick Problems & Thin Solutions