As a social change geek, I spend a lot of time wondering what approaches work best to making change actually happen, and what role NGOs can play. There’s so much money flowing through civil society organisations with admirable long term goals. But are such organisations really on the right path to achieve things like ending global poverty and inequality, or structuring human society so that it can exist sustainably on this planet? From where I’m sitting it doesn’t look like we’re winning.
I think most UK NGOs have the wrong understanding of, and approach to, people power. US Academic Hahrie Han thinks so too, and has some fascinating insights in her recent book ‘How Organisations Develop Activists‘. Together with a few others, I’ve arranged for Hahrie to visit London this spring. Tickets are already available for the campaigner training and the free lecture we’re organising. Below I explain a little about why I’m interested in Hahrie’s ideas, what she says, and how you can get involved.
As I explained in my first blog on here I’ve come full circle in my thinking about how campaigning can be most effective. I started out as a grassroots activist, then journeyed through professional roles focused on things like lobbying and e-campaigning, coming back again to believe activism is key to social change.
Why do I think this? It’s because sustainable changes to human society happen when we manage to convince a majority to change their minds. A relatively small number of committed activists taking visible action can actually swing the spectrum of opinion. When they’re deeply engaged and organising in communities, they can convince passive allies to get involved and support their cause, shift friendly neutrals to becoming allies… This forms the basis of a social movement which is what ultimately shifts the middle ground of opinion on an issue. If this pressure is built and sustained, laws and policies change. It is an approach that builds power from the bottom up.
The diagram above is from the incredible Momentum training I attended a couple of years ago and shows the battle for popular support. You can map this for many causes – think about women’s right to vote or same sex marriage. After success in one country or region, successful movements slowly spread around the world.
Most NGO campaigning does not take this approach. The professional campaigning sector tends to target decision makers for incremental policy changes without much of an eye on building a long term movement. With (increasingly) online actions we seek to lower the barriers to entry, attracting large numbers of people who already agree with us to take a very easy action supporting our cause. In a campaigning sector increasingly squeezed by lack of funds we’ve become less ambitious in achieving change, setting goals we know we can achieve that are easily measurable, to justify our value to donors and management.
In Hahrie Han’s book she studies two American NGOs and their local chapters, looking at why some managed to engage many people and others few. Essentially she identified three strategies that have different outcomes. The first is the ‘lone wolf’; Hahrie is talking about individual activists but this could equally apply to organisations. Lone wolves don’t try to engage people at all – they target decision makers directly with strong policy expertise, conducting research, feeding into consultations etc.
The other two strategies Han found operating did seek to engage public support through two different approaches – mobilising and organising. Mobilising is building membership, engaging people where they are, building the power of the organisation (the kind of campaigning most NGOs do). Organising is very different. This approach builds people’s leadership, starting with a transformational training which organisers then pass on to others they train and so on, in a chain reaction. Organisers have a lot of independence and autonomy. They are building their own power and that of others.Jim Coe has done a great job at summarising these approaches on his blog for those who want more detail.
Han found that chapters taking an organising approach engage many more people deeply, but also many more broadly and deeply at mobilisation level (e.g. signing petitions). Their reach is much wider and deeper. So instead of slamming clicktivism (in a Micah White style way), I actually think it’s a useful tool in the box. But it’s not the be all and end all of people power. Organisations need to cede power to the people whose interests they represent and invest in intense long term organising approaches. Then NGOs could really build a powerful force for social change.
There’s another important point to be made too. Self selecting activists that organisations attract are unlikely to be the most marginalised. As Hahrie says:
When people lack equal opportunities to exercise voice, or when people disengage from politics, distorted and unequal political outcomes can emerge. Participation is crucial to making democracy function, but generating participation is hard.
Civic associations play a crucial role in making democracy work because they help cultivate people’s inclinations for civic and political action. People can learn to be activists through role models, conversations around the dinner table, participation in catalyzing political events or myriad other avenues. Many of these pathways to action are the result of episodic, biographical circumstances. Participation in civic associations, however, is not.
ActionAid’s Activista youth network, where it exists in our local rights programmes in poor and marginalised areas around the world, is a great example of an organising approach engaging those who would never otherwise get their voices heard. There are great examples in the UK too – for example Acorn has had some impressive success organising in marginalised areas in Bristol, London, Newcastle and Birmingham.
Tom Baker (who blogs as the Thoughtful Campaigner), Neil Kingsnorth from Friends of the Earth, myself and a few others want to share Hahrie’s ideas as far and wide as we can across the UK campaigning sector. So we’re organising the following:
Wednesday 30th March – All day campaigner skillshare, focused on what you and your organisation can do to build networks of activists that deliver change. This is now full.
Thursday 31st March (evening) – Free lecture at the University of Westminster, in association with their Masters in Media, Campaigning and Social Change. This is also fully booked, but the waiting list is open and we will have a livestream link to share soon.
If you’d like to know more about any of these events, or discuss these ideas, comment below or tweet me @tashahester.