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how to change the world: what makes a great campaign?

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Ben Lyons, who is a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University.

At this point of the year, we are developing a range of London hub projects aimed at making a positive difference to our city. It’s been fun to brainstorm campaigning ideas with people from a range of professional backgrounds, many of whom haven’t actively campaigned on issues before. The process got me thinking about these five essentials for a successful campaign:

1. Start with a theory of change

Theory of change is charity jargon for the idea that you should start with the big problem you want to solve, and work backwards to how you can make it a dent in it. So if you’re a small group that cares about tackling inequality, arguing that poverty is harmful and that government should raise tax is unlikely to lead to the change you want to see. Instead, break the problem down into smaller chunks, and work out where your organisation could make a difference – and measure that impact. This was the success of the London Living Wage campaign, which organised to increase wages in many of the capital’s big employers, and normalised the idea that the minimum wage amounted to a poverty wage.

2. Be prepared to be flexible

Strategy and theories of change are important, but be prepared to be agile – particularly if you are running a single issue campaign. It may be a truism, but the world we live in is incredibly fast-paced and hard-to-predict. Amid Trump, Brexit and the latest soon-to-be-forgotten example of outrage or amusement on Twitter, it’s hard to cut through. Focus relentlessly on how to grab attention, and if something related to the issue you care about is on the news agenda, “hijack” the story to get your organisation into it.

3. Know your audience

Your audience is unlikely to be Theresa May or Mark Zuckerberg. Are you more focused on trying to persuade the public at large or certain groups within it? Do you need to move Government or business? Who within these huge organisations do you need to persuade? What do they care about? What will make them change their mind?

These are the sort of questions you should be asking yourself. Sometimes, particularly if you are trying to change corporate culture, it may make sense to focus on a particular “target”. For instance, petition site 38 Degrees recently persuaded Unilever to remove the plastic from their PG Tips teabags. The campaign succeeded in large part because of the effectiveness of the selected target: Unilever has built a reputation on their commitment to sustainability, and so weakening that position represents a threat to corporate value. But persuading a major player like Unilever to change course still changes the dynamics among competitors who may be place a lower premium on environmental responsibility.

4. Whoever they are, don’t lose them in facts

The volume of data which is now collected, and the increasing ease at which it can be analysed, may lead campaigners to focus too much on collecting that one “killer fact”. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures. This means that your argument needs to start with the basic moral foundations in which people see the world, and then use well-researched evidence to support your case rather than the other way round.

5. Get started

If you analyse big problems for too long, there can be a tendency to give up. They seem intractable and impossibly complex. This is a recipe for despair. It’s better to start work, and through the process of campaigning, you will build relationships and power that enable you to do more.

As the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger put it: “Hope is not the cause of action, it is the consequence of action. You act and then you begin to hope.”

So get going. 


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