Can ‘Theory of Change’ transform our campaign planning?

To be honest, I’ve struggled to get my head around the ‘Theory of Change’ approach that I’ve seen being talked about across the sector over the last year.

I’ve felt that its something that could be an incredibly powerful tool, but found it’s been hard to really understand of it.

In an attempt to understand it, I attended a Breakfast Briefing organised by NCVO with Brian Lamb last month. Brian has been a leading proponent of the approach for use in campaigning and wrote this report which I blogged on last year.

Hearing Brian talk through how campaigners could make use of Theory of Change was really helpful at bring the theory behind the tool found in various reports and guide that I’ve read to life.

I came away from the time enthusiastic about if for the following reasons;

1. It get’s us to question our assumptions – One of the central features of the approach is to get you to name and provide evidence for the assumptions you’re making that lead you decide that the impact a certain input will have

I’ve long thought that we need to more to justify the decisions that we’re making between impact and outcome, and Theory of Change actively encourages you to do this, demanding you to list your assumptions and discuss why you’ve made them.

In doing so, I think its likely to force us to ask the question, what are the ‘most effective approaches I could use’ as opposed to ‘what existing tools do I already have that I need to use’.

2. It builds from impact up – The first thing that the approach asks you to do is to decide on the impact of your advocacy, this is defined as ‘the ultimate effect on the lives of those you’re seeking change for’.

Brian suggested that while this might sound like a straight forward question to answer, it often takes groups considerable time to come up with the answer to the question, but in doing so they help to reach common understanding of the change they’re seeking.

I know I’ve been in campaign planning sessions before where we’ve spent the majority of our time on agreeing a strategy to reach a policy solution; as opposed to asking what impact we want to that solution to have.

3. Provides clear building blocks – The approach is simple and logical. Working upwards from impact, to mapping the strategies that will be needed to achieve this, to looking at the outcomes needed from activities to achieve this, to looking at the activities that will be required at the heart of the campaign.

Also, because the built, there are lots of existing tools that already exist that can be used to help to guide our theories of change. In the session, Brian shared the work of the Harvard Family Research Project which has undertaken extensive research to identify a number of common approaches to policy goals and activities/tactics. Great source materials to help in campaign planning.

4. Gives us a common language – At the heart of the Theory of Change approach is the need for dialogues and discussion to reach conclusions. In the use of approaches like ‘so that’ chains (where you need to articulate a logical path between the steps you’re suggesting).

Throughout the process it provides opportunities for campaigners to clearly articulate their approach, but also invite others to test and question the logic. I can see how this is really helpful in unpacking the ‘mystery’ of our campaign planning to others, and helping to answer the hard questions

5. Helps to think about the best ways of allocating resources – You’re required to put all the outcomes and activities on the table in the process, rather than selecting those you think possible with the resources that you have.

Doing that means you can look afresh at how you might resource new approaches, or think creatively about new alliances to forge. The research also has some invaluable ‘checklists’ about what an organisation needs to have the capability to undertake effective advocacy.

My conclusion. That its worth investing the time into grappling with Theory of Change because it’s got huge applicability to campaigning and that its great to find someone to help work you through an example of the approach in person.

Campaign Totals 2012 – Home Office

Total number of actions received between May 1st 2011 and May 1st 2012: 33,465

Number of postcards: 12,892
Number of emails: 20,573
Biggest campaign:No weakening of Protection for Animals in UK Laboratories – 13,914 actions.


Breakdown by topic and organisation:

Scorecard based on figures from 2010 to 2012;

Par score based on number of actions at 75th percentile, birdie score on the 85th percentile, and eagle score based on the 95th percentile

View the spreadsheet in google docs here. Information taken from Freedom of Information request returned in June 2012 and is presented as it was received from Home Office.

More about the ‘Campaigns Total’ project here.

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8 things I learned at Netroots UK

I had a great time at Netroots UK yesterday, it was one of those conferences where various elements of my campaigning world came together, a conference full of NGO friends

, Labour Party activists and lots of interesting people who I follow to help to collect ideas for this blog.

I’d strongly recommend that people go next year, and take some time to go back through the #NetrootsUK tag on twitter for a flavour of the discussion.

I came away with lots of reflections and a very long Evernote to go back and read, but here are 8 things that struck me immediately .

1 – We need to find self-replicating models for our campaigning. Paul Mason in a great overview of the UK campaigning sector described UK Uncut as a group that had changed the agenda.

Why? Because companies quickly became terrified of their branches being taken over, and that the model quickly grew from one action in London to many across the country, including involving many people who couldn’t immediately be identified as part of a radical movement.

Dani Paffard from UK Uncut on the same panel spoke on how they’d found the tactics they’d used to sustain media interest for much longer than they expected, and that it was a template that could easily be replicated.

2 – Training Matters– In the same seminar, Paul Mason identified on of the critical groups behind UK Uncut and the Occupy movement in the UK as those who’d attended and be trained at Climate Camp. They were he suggested ‘uber-activists + committed horizontalists who knew what to do’.

Adam Ramsay spoken of how many of those involved had been part of People and Planet as students and identified that as an important training ground, and suggested that while specific campaigns are like flowers that bloom from time to time, we need to invest in the roots that sustain them.

3 – We should be interested in who owns the internet – This wasn’t something that I’d spent much time thinking or indeed worrying about until last week, but hearing Sue Marsh from the Spartacus campaign speak about how they’d found blogs and chat rooms blocked during their campaigning on the impact of austerity on disabled people, you realise how important it is to make sure you have access to the tools you need to get out your message or organise your strategy.

4 – Parody Works – Jenny Ricks from Action Aid shared how they’d used parody to highlight the practices of Tesco and SAB Miller (makers of beer like Grolsch). Jenny suggested that parody has become much more popular because of the web, as it much easier to share and can be helpful in helping to shift a broader debate, in the case of Action Aid on tax dodging. She reminded us of the importance of ensuring significant research is available to back up the claims that are being made.

5 – That the fundamentals remain the same – In the closing session, we heard from Blue State Digital who used the examples of the It Gets Better and the Royal College of Nursing’s ‘Frontline First’ campaigns to remind us that campaigns:

  • Need to make the most of moments.
  • There is a thirst for personal connection even in digital campaigning.
  • That relationships are long-term things to invest in.
  • That online campaigning needs to drive offline activity.

6 – FoI is still a campaigning goldmine – Freedom of Information campaigner, Chris Coltrane reminded us of how easy at tool it is to use, and also that if you get told your request can’t be looked at because it costs too much money to always ask how they’ve made that calculation. My tips on using Freedom of Information are here.

7 – Presentation matters – The team from Who Funds You shared about their work looking at the transparency of UK think tanks, an important but potentially dry subject. However the front page of the site is a brilliant example of how to display the findings without hiding them in a press release. Karin Christiansen who’s behind the work also shared the following tips for anyone working on transparency issues suggested monitoring and ranking is the only way to get attention.

8 – We need to get out of our bubble – One of the final presenters, was Karina Brisby from the VOICE blogging project. She shared about how the project was set up to give voice to new people to share their perspectives on G20 and climate change summits, but also to ensure that the issues were communicated to those ‘outside the bubble’ by inviting bloggers to get involved who had diverse and different audiences.

Learning from Stop the Pipeline campaign

The Stop the Keystone pipeline campaign is one that may have passed many in the UK by but in the US its resulted in a huge victory for environmental campaigners.

In brief, the campaign was looking to halt the construction of a pipeline that would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada across the Midwest of the US to the Gulf of Mexico. You can read more about the pipeline here, and a few weeks ago President Obama announced that he wasn’t approving the go ahead of the pipeline.

It’s a real success for the campaign despite the fact that the campaign believes it was outspent by approx. $60m to $1m by the oil companies behind the pipeline, and research has shown that spokespeople for the pipeline were much more likely to be featured in the media. Although those involved are keen to point out that the fight isn’t over.

One of the most striking tactics that the campaign used was a fortnight of action in Washington DC where over 1,000 people were arrested for taking part in illegal sit-ins. Watching some of the films from August are incredibly inspiring and moving but in many ways these actions were the culmination of over 2+ years of campaigning.

On Thursday, I joined a ‘Debrief’ organised the New Organizing Institute which featured speakers from a number of the organisations that had been involved in the campaign. It was a thought-provoking session, and I came away reflecting on the following lessons learnt from the campaign.

1 – The importance trusted leaders – One of the speakers, spoke about the importance of bringing Bill McKibben into the campaign. McKibben is the founder of and was one of the first to write about climate change for a general audience over 20 years ago. The speaker suggested that his involvement changed the dynamic of the campaign, as he was perceived by many as a trusted leader who brought credibility to the urgency of the campaign message.

It’s a reminder that as well as friends and family who remain the best ‘messengers’ for any issue, some authority sources can be incredibly powerful at mobilising a group of individuals. Who are these in our movements?

2 – They called for a bold action – Bill McKibben is clear that the arrests outside the White House was a key tool in moving the campaign from a local one in the states effected to a national one. The called for a bold action, for activists to do something very real and something powerful.

Social media was used to mobilise people to attend the sit-ins in Washington. Many of those who got arrested had not done so before, and the photos and visuals helped to define the issue – make it a visually compelling action, while running the event over two weeks helped to create a political drama that draws out the story, providing an ongoing story that reporters could focus on.

Watching the films from the fortnight you get an incredible sense of a community amongst those involved in the campaign.

3 – Building locally and ahead of time – Although the peak of the campaigns activities appears to have been in August, listening to speakers from both the Energy Action Coalition and Sierra Club, it’s clear that important work that was done over many years to build campaigning activities in local communities.

In the case of the Energy Action Coalition starting on campuses during the Bush administration, knowing that their would be a day when a group of trained and mobilised young people would be needed. While for the Sierra Club it was going to communities in Nebraska and other effected states, talking to people, sharing stories and mobilising them as part of the campaign, long before the attention was focused on Washington DC.

4 – Using political donors and volunteers – The campaign realised that they couldn’t counter the influence of the significant financial donations that the energy industry makes to elected officials in the US, but they could mobilise the tens of thousands of individuals who had made small donation to, and in many cases worked for the Obama campaign in 2008.

Using this tactics they were able to demonstrate the level of concerns amongst a critical ‘base’ that the president needs to re-engage ahead of the 2012 elections. Meetings at regional offices of ‘Organizing for America’, the Presidents election organisation, as part of a Obama Check Up Day also helped to demonstrate this. Although, we don’t have a similar culture of politician donations in the UK, I can still see opportunities in approaching an issue in this way.

5 – Collaboration and coalition – This wasn’t simply an outsider campaign strategy, the coalition was an especially broad one, with insider meetings happening with the White House at the same time that people were getting arrested outside. The campaign was able to bring together environmental groups, alongside farming groups (whose land was threatened by the pipeline), First-Nation communities, unions and other.

A number of speakers highlighted the importance of this, while recognising the challenges of holding it together, especially around the issue of the  ‘jobs and growth’ agenda that is critical to many in light of the economic crisis . Weekly coordination meetings were held, but interestingly the campaign appears to have remained a ‘loose coalition’ as opposed to a tightly and more formally constituted one.

The folk have also written their reflections which are well worth a read.

Charity meetings with Government Ministers

The release of details of thousands of meetings between government minister and lobbying groups has received lots of coverage in the press in the last few days.  Although the headlines have been on the number of meetings that ministers have had with business groups, there is also lots in the whole data that campaigners can learn from.

The Guardian estimates that charities had around 800 meetings with ministers in the last 12 months, unfortunately they haven’t provided a break of the classification that they used, but a quick play with the information suggests that the following charities had the most meetings;

*These figures currently just include individual meetings in the data that organisations have had. It may change when coalition or roundtable meetings are included.

What else? It looks like lots of the meetings that were held between charities and government were classed as ‘introductory meetings’ this is perhaps to be expected at the start of a new government, but it’ll be important to ensure that this changes in the next 12 months and that representatives are invited to be consulted on policy.

Also, charities and campaigning organisations have been involved in a significant number of meetings with other charities, I count over 80 meetings like this in the date, which is perhaps indicative of the way that we often work and campaign in coalition, but a different approach to that taken by business group.

I plan to spend more time looking at the information later in the week, but please do use the comment section below to share your reflections on what the data tells us about routes to influence.

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Campaign Totals – A look at the departmental figures

I’ve received responses from all but 2 departments (Ministry of Deference and Ministry of Justice) that I approached, but what do the final totals tell us about the way that they’re responding to the actions that we’re sending them?

1. Real variation in numbers between department – I’m not surprised to see the Treasury come top of the survey as it feels indicative of the importance of the department and George Osbourne in a time of declining government budgets, but it’s interesting to see how few actions that No10 appears to have received in the 12 month period.

I’d expected to see more actions being sent to the Departments of Health and Education, but perhaps organisations that focus on these issues have been channeling their resources to influence MPs who have been involved in scrutinising key pieces of legislation going through Parliament.

The table below has a breakdown of the number of actions different departments have received.

2. Big differences in how departments handle campaign actions – The quality of the responses I’ve received has really varied. At the top departments like DFID and DEFRA, incidentally both departments that you sense deal regularly with civil society organisations, have been able to provide me with detailed breakdowns by organisation, action and topic.

At the other end of the scale some departments weren’t able to provide me with any breakdown at all, see Department of Culture, Media and Sport as a good example.

Most departments fall somewhere in the middle, but the exercise has really highlighted to me that we can’t assume as campaigners that our actions are immediately recorded and passed upwards to Ministerial teams. It’s vital that we combine our handovers of campaign actions with other method of notification to staff in Ministerial Offices.

3. What’s in a title? It’s been alarming to see how much of a campaign message seems to be lost when the actions are grouped together. If this is the sort of information that is being processed is a list of actions by title which then gets passed up to Ministers in one form or another, then I’m not sure actions entitled ‘Inspired’ or titles like ‘Get Clever about Climate Cash’ are very clear on what they’re asking for. It seems to me the most effective are those that can be easily summarised like ‘Bingo Say No to 22% Tax’ or ‘Support New Jobs with a Green Investment Bank’ are likely to be clearer at speaking to the policy change that’s being requested.  The Department of Culture, Media and Sport was very helpful in providing me with information about how they display this information to Ministers.

I’ve also been struck by the number of responses that I got that didn’t include details of the organisations behind the actions (despite explicitly asking for this information). If organisation are also using campaign actions as a way of building broader influence with government departments.

Campaign Totals – Department of Work and Pensions

The Department of Work and Pensions indiciated that it was unable to give detailed figures in response to my request.

Total number of actions received between May 1st 2010 and May 1st 2011: approx 8,500

Number of letters: approx. 1,400
Number of postcards: approx. 2,800
Number of emails: approx. 4,300

Breakdown by topic and organisation:
The Department of Work and Pension was unable to give me a detailed breakdown by action but said that they’d received significant numbers of actions from the following organisations;

  • Reform of Disability Living Allowance – Mencap, National Autistic Society, and RNIB
  • Reform of Child Support – Gingerbread
  • “Make welfare work for mental health” – organisation(s) not identified
  • “Hardest Hit” campaign – organisation(s) not identified
  • “Mind the Gap” (Poverty) – UNICEF
  • Remploy (“Chopper Clegg”) – organisation(s) not identified
  • Anti slavery/domestic slavery – International Labour Organisation

Information taken from Freedom of Information request returned on 31 May 2011 and is taken from a list of information provided by Department of Work and Pension .

More about the ‘Campaigns Total’ project here. Be first to get the information from other departments by subscribing to the site using the box on the right, adding to your RSS feed or following me on twitter (@mrtombaker)