Barney Cullum: Grassroots organisations have changed the face of campaigning – charities have a lot to learn

Young civil society organisations are deprioritising direct advocacy to politicians in favour of changing public attitudes

During the pandemic, I decided to take stock of how activist movements younger than the wonderful organisations I had recently worked for, such as the disability charity Leonard Cheshire and the peacebuilding NGO International Alert, were changing the shape of campaigning.

This would go on to become a book, but at the time I was driven purely by fascination with the fire and flair I had been observing from a distance.

We sometimes view the nascent “protest groups” that have sprung up over the past decade (Black Lives Matter celebrated its 10th anniversary this year) as distinct from the third sector.

But behind the eye-catching public actions are movements with sophisticated theories of change. Many are delivering impact on a scale that many traditional charities, which have lived through restrictions ranging from austerity to the introduction of the lobbying act, can only dream of.

One overarching lesson stands out: younger civil society organisations all tend to deprioritise direct advocacy to politicians. Instead, their strategies favour changing public attitudes: social change from the bottom-up rather than the top-down.

When I asked Cisley Gay, chair of the global not-for-profit the Black Lives Matter Foundation, about the movement’s biggest legacy to date, she spoke about the number of US schools that have cancelled their contracts with armed security.

“Our impact came from creating a groundswell of support amongst the people who are often the ones in a position to be victimised by police for change to be made,” Gay said.

The audience strategy has been a fundraising success too, with Black Lives Matter attracting $9m in donations each year for the three years following the murder of George Floyd.

This has allowed it to begin funding its own social intervention programmes rather than needing to ask for government policy change or resources. Black Lives Matter made this breakthrough by focusing on holding grantmakers and corporates to account, more than politicians.

The youth-led climate movement Fridays for Future, created by the environmentalist Greta Thunberg, has also largely bypassed the challenge of winning over politicians.

Small “strikes for climate” continue outside the Swedish parliament but the students that assemble each Friday insist the location has more to do with media optics than with targeting politicians.

When I visited the Riksdag building in Stockholm, Raquel Frescia, leader of the Swedish chapter of Fridays for Future, said its biggest achievements had come from shifting public attitudes rather than those of the public’s representatives in parliament.

“Recently we had a forestation company pledge to fund the Sami movement in Sweden after we spoke to them about the concerns of the Sami people, Frescia told me. (The indigenous population of Sweden is one of the groups most threatened by sustainability challenges.)

“These are the types of impacts we have seen at Fridays for Future. Politicians themselves are not doing enough.”

Many British charities continue to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds into maintaining expensive public affairs teams nine years after the lobbying act came into force, which chills their policy campaigning.

The impact that these passionate, knowledgeable teams can aspire to through direct advocacy is further negated by the regular neutering of campaigning and influencing that arrives with the long ‘purdah’ period in the months prior to each general election.

The success of organisations such as Fridays for Future and Black Lives Matter in changing practices and raising revenue while largely ignoring governments offers a model for stagnating corners of the UK’s third sector.

For Volteface, a London-based independent drug policy research and advocacy organisation, curiosity around international approaches to the drugs reform challenge it faced, coupled with frustration at the dead-end of direct advocacy, influenced a radical shift in tactics.

“I would fly politicians to Canada and show them its decriminalised approach to drugs,” says Paul North, director of Volteface.

They would support change in the moment: “But then we would fly back to England and I would speak with them again when they were around senior politicians and they would say: ‘I can’t support this.'”

Trying to engage politicians on such a moral issue as drugs can lead to a fixation on “What are people going to say?” North says – rather than: “What’s good for the people?”

Studying how law change had been achieved elsewhere, the next person North flew to Canada was Charlotte Caldwell, the mother of Billy Caldwell, a young child who was experiencing dozens of seizures a day.

The family returned with medical cannabis, which they declared to customs at Heathrow, with a press conference already arranged by Volteface on the other side of the airport gate for the moral dilemma that would inevitably follow.

The government subsequently had “no choice”, says North, but to reclassify cannabis for medical use, with more than 20,000 patients benefitting from special prescriptions after the change.

“This is why I believe that the less government engagement the better, because they’re going to do what they’re going to do and they don’t act in the interests of the people, they act in the interest of the votes, on both sides of the house,” he says.

It is rare to see organisations acting with the imagination, bravery and ambition possessed by Black Lives Matter, Fridays for Future and Volteface.

There are, of course, reasons for this. Limiting circumstances faced by traditional charities that many younger organisations do not have to consider.

But the first step in the evolution of any organisation is the very act of imagining a different path. Direct advocacy to politicians does not have to be the only route to the reforms our charities wish to see.

Barney Cullum is the author of Making a Movement: With the Disruptors Driving Social Change Around the World.

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