In February this year, the Campaigns Network met to discuss how campaigns and service delivery can work together. See our blog post on it here. In these times of austerity, both aspects  are under the threat of being cut and organisations face a tough decision about what to fund, ultimately implying a revisiting of articles and purpose.

Seven months into the year are we any closer to reconciling these two pulls on resources? NGOs provide services and that’s (usually) great. But one critique of this approach has always been that it’s about symptoms not causes.

Hence the logic that you would complement service provision through campaigning, which is a way to tackle the causes.

But you might now offer the same critique – that it’s about symptoms not causes – about much current campaigning.

A lot of current NGO campaigning is focused on stopping things getting worse, through small policy and practice wins.

This type of focused campaigning can deliver important results, and where it’s done with integrity shouldn’t be disparaged as a strategy, in the same way that (quality) service provision shouldn’t be.

But is it enough?

Or is it just plugging gaps, playing campaigning whack-a-mole as things overall continue to deteriorate?

When so much effort is needed to try and protect basic services, it may not seem like great advice to suggest stepping back and taking the long view. But if campaigns ignore more fundamental causes of disadvantage, then the risk is that the policy context becomes increasingly disadvantageous.

And then campaigning is increasingly about fighting rearguard action as things gradually get tougher and tougher

And campaigns end up potentially competing with each other for scarce resources as the pie gets smaller.

There is another level of change, underneath all that, that’s not about specific policy but about taking a long view, and finding ways to alter the overall trajectory of change.

It’s about focusing on the need for a more positive context in which policy is forged.

It’s taking a different orientation, from being a player in the game, to changing the rules of the game.

It’s a long term game, it requires broad-based coalition working, there aren’t so many short term wins but it’s about campaigning in ways that leave you better placed to secure positive change in future.

We’re in Hahrie Han territory again here, and the concept of ‘profits and assets’, which she talks about in this podcast episode.

Organisations can work towards achieving immediate wins (profits), but should also be thinking about building their capacity for the long-term (assets).

Policies that are the most durable and scaled over time are the ones that successfully “shift the terrain on which interests are calculated. These policies, in other words, shift the balance of power over time because they create a different incentive structure for political actors.

There are internal dimensions to this, relating to how organisations build (or don’t build) the agency of supporters and other constituents, building people’s agency  so that they have increased efficacy as advocates.

And there’s an external dimension too. It’s about shifting the context by:

  •       Transforming power relations – so there are different dynamics around whose voices are heard and whose interests are being represented, how;
  •       Changing social norms – creating the space for alternative visions around problems and solutions in ways that open up new political opportunities

And in the same way that campaigning is different from service delivery, campaigns that are about these more fundamental changes are qualitatively different from campaigns focused on incremental change:

Lumping it all together as ‘campaigning’ may not be that helpful.

At the least when we think about campaigns we should think about these different dimensions, and timescales, of change and not just focus on short term policy and practice. And at the most, we should think about whether we need a different word to describe this approach?

 

Or can we go back to the roots and just called it ‘Social Change’.

 

Esther Foreman, CEO of The Social Change Agecny

Senior Associate at SCA and Founder of The Advocacy Iceberg.