People-power, evaluations and Bowie – my year in summary

Last weekend I was asked to speak to graduates of Campaign Bootcamp NZ. The young campaigners had completed the one week programme last September. They were coming together again to brush up their skills and to share what they’d done since the training. I spoke to them about  what I’d been working on and thinking about over the past year. 

I started by talking a bit about what a great year it’s been for people power – with victories like the shelving of the Keystone XL pipeline and Shell dropping plans for Arctic drilling. A few of the campaigners present were involved with 350 Aotearoa – another great example of a people powered movement which has pulled off some impressive work this year. I talked a bit about how established campaigning organisations – like Greenpeace – are putting people-power much more centrally in their theory of change and working more alongside grassroots movements. I’m an avid user of the Greenpeace website Mobilisation Lab for information and resources relating to people powered campaigning.

The second thing I touched on was what a year of unexpected events it’s been. The rise of Donald Trump, the scale of terrorist attacks in Europe and Turkey, and of course Brexit have left us with our jaws on the floor. These events – or disruptions –  starkly demonstrate that we can no longer think of change in linear terms. Plus, campaigners and advocates are increasingly asking big questions about why our victories aren’t lasting and we find ourselves constantly fire-fighting instead of transforming. It seems we need new analytical frames and tools to help us plan campaigns. Organisations like Oxfam and Greenpeace have been trialling systems approaches to develop strategies. Systems thinking may help us plan in a world where change is non-linear. And help us avoid campaigns that focus too narrowly on single objectives and targets.  No-one seems to have definitive tools yet for how to put this into practice (and maybe there shouldn’t be). But it certainly means more analysis in the initial stages of planning and allowing ourselves more time to review and adjust our campaigns.

Related to this, my final point was around monitoring and evaluation. No, don’t stop reading! This is important! M&E may be perceived as boring and bureaucratic but if we’re to be more responsive and innovative then measuring impact, understanding what we did well and learning from our mistakes are crucial parts of campaigning. As a consultant, M&E is part of my bread and butter but it needn’t be an expensive exercise for which you use outside help. Just building review points into your campaign plan and using simple tools can help you learn and improve. Plus technology allows us to share the lessons we’ve learned so that colleagues within our organisations and across movements can learn from what we’ve done. I’ve seen some great examples of publicly shared evaluations this year like this one by,  or 350’s Story Telling Labs.  And as a little trumpet-blow, GPNZ’s shared lessons from a people powered action last March which I helped write.

It was great to stick around on Sunday  and hear participants’ presentations about what they’d done since Bootcamp. I was struck at how the training programme had not just equipped the campaigners with the right skills but also bolstered their confidence to attempt things they’d never thought they were capable of. Like Daniel Gamboa who, since Boot Camp, established the New Zealand Youth Refugee Council and has been asked to advise global governments on the issues facing refugee youth. Or Sophie who’s been inspired to stand for election to her local council. Or Tara Jackson who took on a major campaign to halt a new animal testing lab. Their stories made me think of a Bowie clip I saw recently where he talked about the necessity to work out of your depth:

“Always go a little bit further into the water than you feel you’re capable of…and when you don’t feel your feet are touching the bottom you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

A lesson for us all I reckon!

Thanks Sam and the others at CBNZ for inviting me back.


Photo: Maisa NYC  (2013) / Creative Commons

Emily Armistead

Emily Armistead is a campaigns consultant currently based in London. She blogs about how to make our campaigns and organisations more effective.

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