This week, as talks continue between NGOs for a new joint campaign, The Guardian published ‘Lessons from Make Poverty History.’ Kirsty McNeill – who served on the co-ordination team of Make Poverty History before joining N0.10 as an advisor – gave her reflections on the campaign’s strengths and weaknesses.
Populism. If your theory of change is based on getting huge numbers of people to act, you need to find them. Make Poverty History’s single most important strategic decision was to be mass-market, creating moments that nervous politicians and the swing voters couldn’t ignore. So while we appreciated the specialist coverage we got, it was getting on the front of tabloids and into the Vicar of Dibley that reminded us that the mainstream middle is not just the most populous place in British politics – it’s also the most powerful.
Low barriers to entry. Strategists often talk about levels of engagement as rungs on a ladder and then promptly forget that people climb from the ground. It isn’t good enough to throw bodies at the top rung and hope that some will cling on; you need to encourage people on to the first rung by making the climb seem both easy and worth it. Some people felt we made the barriers to entry too low to be meaningful as a form of activism – that the 8 million white band-wearing Britons and 3 billion Live 8 viewers didn’t really mean it. Those debates were a forerunner of the one that is happening now about clicktivism – Make Poverty History wasn’t the start of it. The 1988 Free Nelson Mandela concert revealed that the majority of Britons couldn’t name their MP but a staggering 92% knew the name of an activist imprisoned 6,000 miles away in Robben Island.
Message discipline. Despite bringing together several hundred organisations and campaigning across three issues and 12 months, member organisations displayed extraordinary message discipline and generosity in merging their own organisational profiles and priorities into the collective for a year. Where we were much weaker was in “pricing” those demands consistently to create predictable and powerful incentives. Politicians don’t like to be surprised – they need to know what it takes to please you and what you will do if they meet the demands.
The political to do list. Politicians have a “to-do” list. Demands need to be broken down into a realistic action plan. It’s important for your impact and credibility to avoid asks which are too imprecise. Focus on pressuring people to do what is in their power to do.
Questions of legitimacy. Charities tend to be obsessed with other charities. Increased access is rarely sought on behalf of a meaningfully representative group; I’ve seen many more NGOs angling for a hearing for their own staff from a region than arguing that the most effective or legitimate advocate for Tanzania, for example, is the person the people picked as their president. Make Poverty History was undoubtedly weakened by being (and being seen to be) a mobilisation of the north for the south. But northern agencies cannot hand a veto on strategy or policy to their hand-picked southern partners and pretend they’ve answered all the thorny questions of legitimacy, mandate and representativeness.
Coalitions of the too like-minded. We need to get much better at forming unexpected strategic coalitions – not simply banding together with the nearest and most comfortable partners. In our case, the partnership between campaigning charities and the advertising, music and television industries was key to taking our issue from being important but marginal to sitting squarely at the centre of Britain’s political debate and national conversation. Their involvement was not welcomed by every charity in the coalition, but for me the lesson to be drawn from the culture clash is not that we should stop creating high impact coalitions, it’s that we should work out and change whatever it is in charity culture that makes working inside them so painful for all concerned.