I wanted to share with you some of the awesome advice that came out of the Campaigning for Social Change session today at Chain Reaction 2008.  Jonathan Ellis, Director of Policy at the Refugee Council, shared what he has experienced as the key attributes of a successful campaign for social change.

1. Make a positive connection: we often make a connection with people but the message depresses them.  Successful campaigns get people activated and energized.  The way to do that is to create a message that clearly defines the problem AND solution.

2. The elevator test: 15 seconds [in an elevator] to pitch your issue/campaign to the leader, politician, funder or whomever.  Using that message from number 1 above, the problem and solution needs to be able to be articulated in just 15 seconds.  (Yes, your campaign and issues needs more than 15 seconds, we know.  The elevator test is the core of the message.)

3. Work out who has the power: Who are you directing the campaign at?  How really has the power to realise the change you seek?  Campaigns are often launched at the wrong audience.  They have a great message, a great plan, a worthy cause – but are talking to the wrong people.  Is the president really the one to convince?

4. Use the right campaign tools:  It’s like being a general on the eve of battle and looking at all the troops before you: Research, lobbying, media, supporters, allies, etc.  Not every one needs to be used all the time.  But the right groups at the right times in the right ways.  Keep in mind that alliances and partnerships aren’t bad, especially when they are unconventional.  For example, Oxfam working with workers’ unions for the campaign around asylum seekers.

5. Plan for success:  What happens if/when you succeed?  Plan to be successful and plan where you are going once you get there (because you aren’t finished!).

6. Never stop campaigning: Things can be fickle!  Say you get a law passed that provides allotment of funds for the community services you campaigned for.  Then, two years later, those funds are reallocated.  Where are you?  Where is your campaign?  Are you still working, still activating your members, still participating in the arena in an influential way?

7. Your choice of message:  Campaign messages that are successful are those that motivate the audience with power, not the organizers.  Often, when we are building a campaign, it’s easy to identify what motivates us and what calls us to action, but that’s not necessarily the best motivating message for the audience you are reaching out to.  For example, a campaign about empty property that is directed at home owners with a message that compares the numbers of homeless people and the empty properties isn’t as effective as one that talks about the fact that empty housing devalues surrounding homes.

8. Enthusiasm:  it’s self-explanatory but often more difficult than you’d think.  I’m sure you can think of a time when you’ve talked to a campaigner who just doesn’t have his or her heart in it.  It makes a big difference if you’re enthusiastic, both about the campaign and the issue, or not.

9. Enjoy your campaign:  again, it’s self-explanatory but often overlooked.  Be passionate and enjoy it.

Lastly, be sure to include at the center of your campaign those who are/will be effected.  No one else can tell the story of a homeless person living on the street and dealing with health issues than someone who is.  No one can talk about the issues in public schools as well as those who are in them every day.  Give those you want to help the microphone, the spotlight, and let them tell their own story.

What are the key attributes to successful campaigns you’ve been a part of?  Has your organization used any of the above points?

Successful Campaigns: Ideas from Chain Reaction
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  • Love this post Amy…particularly #1. Working for universal health care, we constantly hear the most awful horror stories, and while they are really powerful, they are REALLY depressing. AND, the fact of the matter is that they don’t really connect with anyone except for folks who have experienced something just as bad — which most of us haven’t.

  • Nice post, thanks! Regarding point number 2, I suggest people experiment with creating a 12 second video that explains their cause and posting it to http://12seconds.tv/ (and to youtube or other social networking sites, but 12 Seconds is fun and has a mission of keeping the message short!).

  • Jonny Gutteridge

    Thanks for a great summary of the session Amy, except: the guy who shared his experience was Jonathan Ellis, Director of Policy at the Refugee Council. Kevin had been told the wrong time for the session so he didn’t make it and Jonathan took up the reins at the last minute.

  • Thanks, Jonny! I’ll update the post straight away!

  • I wanted to follow up with some more comments. Here at the healthcare4every1 Campaign we were able to realize some of these principles this week. As I said in my first comment, it’s so hard for us to stay positive because there is so much that is wrong with the health care system in America and it can have such drastic effects on people and their families.

    However, this week we launched a new video we produced called, “What if…”. The video is very positive and doesn’t go into heartbreaking stories.

    When we launched the video, we sent out an email alerting our members. Even though the email was sent late in the day, we ended up with the 3rd most visits of any day in the history of http://www.healthcare4every1.org (also besting the hectic legislative battles that usually get the most hits).

    I was completely shocked because our member involvement has been very low this fall and our email open rates and click-through-rates are performing far below industry standards and their highs (20+%) seen in the Spring.

    But also, while we didn’t have a 15 second pitch (as seen in #2) we did tell people how much time it would take by putting in the subject line, “3 minutes of what Connecticut could be like.” Our members responded and are opening the email at much higher rates.

    All told, we’re seeing a surge of engagement in a message that is based in hope and positive thinking. Not policy and not heartbreaking stories.

    I’ll stop here, and if you’re interested in seeing a “positive” health care video, you can do it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPXOmeZ5mWI

  • Adam, you’re a super star! Thanks so much for sharing that story; I love it! What a great example of doing it all right: the subject line, the content, the media (video in this case), and appropriate message. I’m going to watch 3 minutes right now!

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