At the risk of sounding like an absolute dinosaur, it is astonishing to think about the ways in which political campaigning has changed since I first joined the sector, around 20 years ago. When I started out, the ‘supporter journey’ was essentially me sending an email once a month, sometimes with a Word Doc template letter which campaigners could download and post to their MP…! Clearly things have moved on and campaigning in Westminster is now much more sophisticated. But nfpResearch are right to encourage us to stop and reflect: we do so much, but how much of it is having an impact?
As the report notes, there is no one size fits all approach. There are many variables to consider – the issue itself, the political support it has, the resources your charity has, and more – which makes any kind of ‘golden rule’ impossible. That said, some of the campaigns I’ve worked on have been more successful than others and I am pleased to be able share some insights.
Proper policy development is crucial
We’ve all worked with CEOs or directors who just want us to get on with it, particularly if the issue is already getting a lot of political attention. And there are times when we need to be agile and seize the opportunity. But the best political campaigns are those that are based on thorough, detailed policy development. Allowing policy team the space to work through the issues, hold the focus groups, do the surveys, and identify the policy hooks in Whitehall serve us well in the long run.
Think about your route to change
Most policy issues are complicated and messy. There’s rarely one singular route to change. At Scope, we try to think carefully about which of our policy recommendations lend themselves to big, public facing mobilisation campaigns, and which don’t. For example, our work on the benefits system spans a huge number of issues, but we’ve zoomed in on just one, tangible ask for our public facing campaign – something our supporters have told us is important, and something we can communicate clearly and track progress on. We’re comfortable working on other areas of the benefits system in different ways – directly with civil servants, through consultation responses, or with particularly knowledgeable MPs.
Plan your supporter journeys
The best campaigns I’ve worked on are the ones that have three to six months of activity planned out from the beginning. The ones where we’ve thought about the steps campaigners can take to increase the pressure over time, and where we have a range of ways in which our political targets can get involved. A recent example is Scope’s #WithoutTheFight campaign – it began with a petition to bring in supporters, then moved to inviting supporters to share experiences for our report; supporters inviting MPs to our parliamentary event; supporters and Scope asking MPs to sign a cross-party letter; and MPs being involved in the hand in of the letter and petition. The planning gave us 6 months of activity and plenty of opportunity to build support for the campaign in Westminster.
Lived experience trumps all
Think about the different ways you can bring lived experience into your political work and shake it up a bit if you can. One of the most impactful events I’ve worked on was Mind’s crisis care parliamentary reception. We set up 10 tables in the Members Dining Room - one for each region of England – and invited MPs to simply listen to people who had experienced a mental health crisis in their patch. We didn’t script it, we just let the conversations flow. It was was the first time many of the MPs had had a conversation like this and their commitment to improving mental health services was sealed in that room.
Have something to offer MPs
Most of the time we’re asking MPs to do something for us, but if you have opportunity to offer something to MPs and ask for nothing in return it can really strengthen the relationship. During the 2017 election campaign, Mind sent all Prospective Parliamentary Candidates some top tips on managing stress – in recognition of the stress they were experiencing at that time. We were truly surprised how many of them came back to us and shared their personal experiences of mental health problems, and many of them went on to be champions of our work in Westminster.
For more examples from charity professionals on how they have campaigned for change, read the second chapter of the new nfpResearch report - ‘How charities campaign for change in Westminster’ – available for download below.