We live in interesting times

As the election looms over us, The Social Change Agency and Associates have taken some time out and done some ‘helicopter thinking’ around the status of campaigning and the future of it in civil society. While we know that it is not a new topic. We feel somehow that in our ever lasting crawl towards a better democracy and a more equal society, and in these uncertain times, it is a crucial time to revisit what we are doing and why we are doing it.  

The NGO sector has traditionally been seen as campaigning on behalf of its beneficiaries.  See ACEVO, Speaking Frankly, Acting Boldly, Charities and not-for-profits are champions of change, vocal in their demands. They’re funnelled with resources and support to ensure there is an effective voice for the disadvantaged.

But this hasn’t been the image of the NGO sector for a while. Instead, as the report from CIVICUS has shown, the space for advocacy and campaigning is closing down globally. In the UK, while the public is losing their fundraising confidence in the public sector, some MPs are joining the international chorus of criticism, helping to stoke public scepticism about NGOs’ being ‘too political’

We face an interlinked set of testing contexts.

In the UK, economic prospects don’t look good. There are contextual challenges on multiple fronts. And the direction of social policy is being informed by growing, and increasingly confident, ‘populist’ right movements and parties.

Disadvantaged groups, refugees and migrants, prisoners and ex-prisoners, disabled people and others, as always are at the sharp end of these trends and are facing a spiral of disadvantage, where hostile opinion is the context for increasingly detrimental policy marking as they struggle to gain a foothold or a voice, for their present and future lives.  See Jim’s previous blog post about this here.

On top of all that, we’re looking at a new political context post-election, possibly signalling a long-term reorientation of the UK political landscape.

That all makes now a good time for the sector to consider whether current approaches to campaigning are fit for purpose.

As ACEVO states, it means being confident about why and when campaigning is a good thing.

And it means fulfilling a responsibility that we all have, to ensure that resources are being used as effectively as they can be.

So what needs to change?

NGOs need to demonstrate that they can be vehicles for delivering effective campaigning. And given the size and weight of the challenges, that requires NGOs, individually and as a sector, to take the time to reflect on current practice, and address head on some difficult questions. We’re on the knife edge of two different political landscapes. As everything gets re-set post election, it’s important for the NGO sector to take a step back and really interrogate their campaigning practices.

This is why we’re writing a blog series exploring the effectiveness of campaigning and the future of campaigning in an uncertain reality.

We’ll be forecasting the trajectory of campaigning if we carry on unchanged, we’ll be postulating what different approaches would look like, and we’ll be analysing the current shortfalls that have stopped us from adapting.

We have some thoughts on all of these things that we want to share, to encourage reflection and kick off conversations about what future campaigning should look like and what needs to change to get there.  Keep an eye out on our blog posts and for the odd round table here and there. (FYI- We are hosting one for the Campaign Network, with CharityComms on 4th July,  and we are looking to host a Civil Society Futures Conversation soon. Contact us at info@thesocialchangeagency.org for more details).

Esther Foreman, CEO of The Social Change Agency

Jim Coe, Senior Associate, The Social Change Agency and Founder of  The Advocacy Iceberg Podcast