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Campaigning coalitions: How to unlock effective activism

Campaigning has gained a new lease of life

Following the EU referendum last year, so many people of all political persuasions have become (re)energised and active in campaigning. That energy is the fire that makes change happen, and many will be looking to harness it for the upcoming snap general election campaigns.

But we all need to make sure our energy and that of the newly-(re)engaged is applied for the greatest possible impact. To continue to use approaches that do not work is the worst kind of wasteful. It lets down the people and causes we’re trying to serve.

Today’s challenges are too complex for any one organisation to tackle alone

Successful influencing work has to be able to flex and adapt while keeping a laser focus on the change you seek.

The problem you’re looking to fix is situated within a system: you’ll need to influence different actors and shift different interests. No single organisation can deliver all those changes change on its own. What’s needed is a constellation of different actions, drawing together the talents and expertise from a wide network into bespoke, complementary coalitions.

But with so many actors and jostling priorities, how can this be done to the greatest impact?

Flash back for a moment to 2016, when desperately-needed food and medical supplies got into besieged cities and towns in Syria—in some cases for the first time in years. A host of people secured this campaign success, applying their energies and talents in disparate ways—28 faith leaders, MPs from across Europe, influential politicians like Paddy Ashdown and Mark Malloch Brown, humanitarian and human rights organisations. Each group spoke out in way that was true to their voice and expertise.

Throughout all of this, we at Crisis Action operated as a ‘systems entrepreneur’—working behind the scenes to coordinate these tactics on the basis of a strategy we developed with humanitarian and human rights organisations. The central question was: what combination of efforts will produce the political shift needed to achieve our goal?

Here are a few lessons we learned from this approach that can be applied elsewhere:

  1. Serve the cause not the coalition. You should design the coalition around the change you want to see and your theory of change, instead of starting from a pre-existing coalition or seeking universal agreement. That way you avoid the descent to the lowest common denominator that is the Achilles heel of so much coalition work.
  2. Stay behind the scenes. Not seeking any public profile around the campaign—like we do at Crisis Action—means you can be the honest broker, the strategic convenor (the ‘systems entrepreneur’) for building coalitions of maximum impact.
  3. Keep adapting your campaign’s strategy according to information crowdsourced from your network. It helps you identify political opportunities and adapt to shifting ground.
  4. Measure your impact. You need to know what worked (and what didn’t) for next time. For example, partly because we do not seek any public profile during the Syria campaign, we were able to build trusting connections with policy makers. And they confirmed that the coordinated civil society pressure contributed directly to the international agreement that led to humanitarian aid reaching 19 towns.

Effective campaigning in the current political disorder needs to be flexible, networked, and purposeful. Get that right, spark campaign success even in this tough context, and this renewed campaigning energy will only grow.

Check out Creative coalitions: A handbook for change for tips on playing the role of an effective strategic convenor, designing effective coalitions, building your network to expand the range of innovative campaign tactics, and organising in a way that maximises your impact.

See also NPC’s work on measuring the impact of your campaigns.