Linda Butcher: 'There are various ways that you can set your agenda'

People might need time and support before they are ready to campaign alongside you, writes our columnist

Linda Butcher says it is important to give people a variety of ways to engage
Linda Butcher says it is important to give people a variety of ways to engage

A visit to Romania to learn more about campaigns reminded me of the real challenges facing people who are speaking out as, or on behalf of, some of the most marginalised in society, and it made me look again at how people and organisations are responding to this.

A recent example is the more than 350 voluntary organisations that have signed up to the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign and are boycotting the government's Help to Work programme as a way of taking a stand on this issue and raising awareness.

In any campaign there is always the question of who sets the agenda. You might need a planned, strategic and centralised approach to give your campaign scale, consistency, weight and prominence, and this can run alongside user-defined actions. Leonard Cheshire Disability operates two tiers of campaigning: central staff work on national policy while local campaign networks tackle issues that affect them and their communities. But there is overlap. After local campaign networks sent letters to MPs in support of a national campaign to tackle disability poverty, the government made a commitment and the Office for Disability Issues now measures disability poverty. This is a good example of how centrally based staff and people directly affected by an issue can work in tandem to make an impact.

Use people, not case studies, to tell a story

And what about the human stories in a campaign? At the one-day conference People Power 2014 in April, Katherine Sladden of the campaigning website reminded delegates to use people, not case studies, to tell a story because it is more meaningful and powerful. The Guardian did just that when it teamed up with 17-year-old Fahma Mohamed, who had launched a petition on asking the then education secretary, Michael Gove, to write to all headteachers in England about the issue of female genital mutilation. The petition attracted 250,000 signatures and endorsements from the Pakistani schoolgirl and education activist Malala Yousafzai and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Gove agreed and the Scottish government followed suit.

It is important to give people a variety of ways to engage. If you're trying to influence policy, supporters can get involved by meeting politicians, writing to their MPs or signing petitions. This is how the National Autistic Society campaigned for the introduction of the Autism Act 2009, the first disability-specific law in England.

Finally, if you're campaigning on behalf of people who have suffered abuse, there are other things to keep in mind. Margaret McGuckin, co-founder of Savia, the abuse victims charity, is a long-standing campaigner for the rights of people who suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children in institutions in Northern Ireland. She is an abuse survivor herself, has worked tirelessly to help others to speak out about their abuse, and has persuaded the Northern Ireland Assembly to establish an inquiry into these crimes.

This serves as a reminder that people might need time and plenty of support until they feel confident or able to fight alongside you - or in front of you - for justice, even when they are 100 per cent behind the campaign aim.

Linda Butcher is chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation

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