Campaigning and social change

Note from Better Way London cell 2 – 17 July 2017

We considered the recent discussion by the Better Way London cell 1, following on from the Grenfell fire,  about what generates social change – is it resident-led campaigning, or a sub-set of the elite winning the argument with their class, or an alliance of both, alongside technical specialists, journalists, academics, and others? 

We also considered the observation from the June 2017 Better Way gathering that ‘the role of social activists is to grow the capacity for change making in others, not simply to lead the change ourselves’.

We observed that within much of the voluntary sector, ‘campaigning’ has become problematic. 

  • Even the most progressive independent grant makers are finding it difficult to persuade their trustees to fund ‘campaigns’, feeling more comfortable with terms like social change.  In the UK, compared to the United States, there is little institutional support, especially in the form of unencumbered grant aid, for the core operations of campaigning bodies.
  • Campaigning has become degraded within many charities. Staff with campaigning roles tend to be low status, and campaigning has become at best a function of policy or public affairs,  building relationships behind the scenes with the powerful rather than generating mass mobilisation or speaking out against injustice. At worst it is little more than an adjunct to fundraising. ‘Born campaigners’ rarely sit comfortably within a conventional charity structure; their inherent tendency is to challenge and break the rules, not to adhere to a corporate brand. Campaigners are rarely promoted to leadership roles in charities, which tend to value professionalised managerial skills in order to safeguard and grow organisations, rather than to change the world. As a result we have few if any charity leaders who can bring an authentic campaigning voice into national public debates, as for example Sheila McKechnie once did. And we have too many ‘zombie charities’: organisations just concerned with continued existence rather than making a difference, more dead than alive.


  • The voluntary sector leadership response to the recent attacks by government and the Charity Commission on campaigning by charities has been weak; it seemed the priority was about defending organisational privilege rather than speaking up for the validity of bold and outspoken campaigning. We seem to lack intellectual leadership within civil society.

Perhaps this is in part a reflection of a dominant strain within the voluntary sector, which sees itself as emerging from a philanthropic heritage, and is therefore naturally aligned with the establishment (unlike in the USA where campaigning was born of the civil rights movement), and cautious about campaigning when it threatens to disrupt the status quo. And yet the voluntary sector and civil society also has another heritage which has evolved in parallel with philanthropy: self-help and mutual aid, stretching back at least to the eighteenth century. This emerged from friendly societies and other forms of working class association, and included union mill societies, corresponding societies, early trades unions, co-operative societies, early building societies and so on.  Perhaps we need to rediscover and celebrate that heritage, and the more radical campaigning spirit which often went with it. 

And indeed there are some signs of this.  A generation of social activists are turning away from traditional philanthropic charity models and using other vehicles: community interest companies, community land trusts, community benefit societies, for example.  They are applying associational methods, crowd-funding, community shares, and attracting large numbers of people into campaigns through social media. There is usually less preoccupation with organisational boundaries and brand, and there is often high energy and optimism. Overall, there seems to be more “fire” from leaders at local level and the change that is most effective is happening outside of charities.  Sometimes this is coming from the private sector.

And yet much of this remains essentially consensual, often assuming that a combination of the many will of itself produce positive change, and is weakened by a lack of ananalysis of power, and how those without resources, or who are systematically marginalised, can bring about change. Social entrepreneurs it seems are not necessarily social activists or campaigners.

In this context it might be helpful to revisit Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’, in which campaigning tactics start from the premise that power is concentrated in institutions which will not easily give it up. While sometimes criticised for adversarial positioning, many of Alinsky’s rules still have resonance today:

1.      Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have.

2.      Never go outside the expertise of your people.

3.      Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.

4.      Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.

5.      Ridicule is man's most potent weapon.

6.      A good tactic is one your people enjoy.

7.      A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

8.      Keep the pressure on. Never let up.

9.      The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

10.   The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

11.   If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive.

12.   The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

13.   Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

We considered what we might learn from successful campaigns in the recent past, eg the dramatic shift in gay and lesbian legal rights and in public attitudes over the last two decades. Reflecting on this we can see that a combination of elements was needed: a cause celebre (the Clause 28 campaign); campaigning agencies (eg Stonewall); determined and brave leadership figures (eg Peter Tatchell); skills to ‘dance with the system’ and win allies within the establishment and media (Tory MPs, Princess Diana, Ian McKellen, Michael Cashman). It seems that a change of this magnitude happens when people in power feel uncomfortable about standing in the way (even if they don’t necessarily believe wholeheartedly in the cause).

We should not forget that not all campaigning is about social change. Campaigning can also be about defending things which are valued, blocking change which is seen as damaging.  Nor is the loudest campaigning necessarily the most effective: Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective speaks up for the ‘quiet campaigners’ which, in her case, means exposing the scandal of global poverty and human rights injustices through the power of craft and public art.

Power, and how it is applied by institutions, is perhaps more complex now and operates in more disguised forms than when Saul Alinsky started out in 1930’s Chicago battling against the venal Town Hall, the corrupt Teamsters trade union, the Catholic Church, and the Mob!  But as we look forward we will increasingly face big ethical questions: what are we for?  And if we are, at least in part, for challenging injustice, and institutions which perpetuate injustice, how far are we prepared to go in pursuit of that?

We concluded by wondering why there was not more leadership in the voluntary secretary, including a leadership of ideas.  The voluntary sector should not allow itself to be characterised just by its philanthropic history.  Potentially Grenfell Tower had created a “teachable moment” and ways needed to be found to use this emotional heat but first we need to sharpen our tools and wake up.