This is my first column as the new chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation. As most will know, the foundation trains, supports and celebrates campaigners. I am myself a campaigner and have spent nearly 25 years campaigning chiefly around women’s issues and gender equality, but also on the environment and sustainability. I’m passionate about and fascinated by change, and have observed huge shifts in the dynamics of change.
When I started out, the idea that a commercial company could do good was anathema, and most comms strategies were driven by stunts and tactics aimed at engaging the media in order to reach people. Now some corporates are more progressive than government or even charities; everyone can reach and talk to everyone else directly, and traditional media increasingly finds itself outside the conversation. Old forms of organising – in workplaces, notably – are in decline. New ways of pursuing positive change are emerging – look at the burgeoning social enterprise sector. In many ways, power is more deconstructed and democratised.
In other ways, though, real power is polarising back towards almost pre-industrial models. Eye-watering disparities in the distribution of wealth and a retrenchment of social policy aimed at reducing inequality mean we have a new ruling class made up of the business owners, bankers and plutocrats who rule the roost. The richest 1 per cent of Brits control 50 per cent of the country’s wealth.
For all these reasons, the role of campaigners is more important than ever. Their role is giving voice to those who do not have one and standing up for the interests of people or things that tend to get overlooked, whether these are vulnerable or marginalised people, communities or the planet; holding to account those who do have power, and defending not just the right to – but the social value of – a vibrant, active civil society.
All these changes in turn bring new opportunities and challenges for campaigners. Tools and tactics are diversifying and getting more sophisticated. New theoretical frameworks have emerged, from behaviour change to social movement theory. Resources are getting tighter, so finding low-cost yet high-impact ways to effect change are key.
But campaigning still isn’t seen as a discipline or a sector in its own right. It still tends to get wrapped up with the wider voluntary sector, even though this has become increasingly dominated by super-sized service-delivery organisations and health research organisations. I think it is time for campaigning to be seen as its own discipline and campaigners as constituting a discrete profession. Fundraisers have this status and extensive bespoke support. I’d like to see the same for campaigners.
I’d like to see SMK build on its success in training campaigners to become a centre of excellence for campaigning and a professional hub for campaigners. I’d like to see a wider range of support and more tools available to help campaigners. I’d be very interested to hear from other campaigners about this idea. If reading this has sparked a thought, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.