At Work: Communications - Campaigning - Blockbusters don't always work

The Make Poverty History campaign of 2005 is often hailed as the template that all other campaigns should follow. But two years after it happened, have we really made poverty history?

After the G8 summit in Germany earlier this month, the air is currently full of campaigners' protests about the failure of governments to make good on their promises of 2005. It seems an appropriate time to reflect on the long-term effectiveness of such campaigns.

Make Poverty History was clearly effective in galvanising public opinion and engagement in the short term. It enlisted support from celebrities to achieve what appeared to be an historic commitment.

But it is questionable just how effective such mass-movement campaigns are at securing the admittedly daunting goals of global change and retaining long-term activism.

The throwing away of thousands of supporters' details at the end of the campaign and an attempt to resurrect the sprit of 2005 in a new initiative two years later illustrate the difficulties such campaigns face. With the complexity of a multi- faceted and coalition-based campaign, there was no opportunity to develop a sustainable strategy or engage supporters in the long term.

The very success of Make Poverty History in creating such a huge profile is also responsible for a malaise in campaigning thinking. Many organisations have been driven into looking for their versions of the 'blockbuster campaign', when more modest approaches might have achieved just as much.

Previously, everyone wanted their campaigns to emulate the NSPCC's Full Stop campaign. Now we are all after another Make Poverty History. This has spawned a number of poor imitations that, unsurprisingly, have failed to resonate with the public in the same way.

We are in danger of overselling to a public that is becoming more sceptical about the next armband and pin badge that claims to be able to change the world.

There also appears to be an inverse relationship between the number of people a campaign inspires to protest and the amount of social change achieved. Policy on the Iraq war did not noticeably change after millions marched and, two years after Make Poverty History, the commitments made by the G8 in 2005 look weak. Mass campaigning works only if those brought out onto the streets are channelled into more local and more achievable goals. Brian Lamb is director of communications at deafness charity the RNID and chair of the NCVO Campaigning Effectiveness Board.

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