by | Oct 10, 2022

How SMK is nurturing a new type of activist leader

We are in turbulent times with the odds stacked against charity campaigning. Yet SMK is seeing evidence of courageous campaigning at the frontline. We believe developing a new cadre of activist leaders through our Campaign Carousel training programme is a positive contribution. Trust in national politicians stands at its lowest level on record. Our collective anger at growing inequality is heightened by the awful impact of the cost-of-living crisis. Draconian legislation and populist attacks on civil society organisations that dare to speak up are making campaigning feel ‘risky’ for some. Against this difficult backdrop, a recent opinion piece suggests that many charities have stopped actively fighting for social justice. But, at SMK, we see evidence every day of individual activists and people within movements leading the fightback. We’re nurturing this model through our Campaign Carousel training programme in a bid to develop a new cadre of bolder campaigners. 

Evidence of courageous campaigning  

During the pandemic, the UK government embarked on what are widely viewed as a hostile series of mass deportations by charter flight to countries including Zimbabwe and Jamaica. Zita Holbourne worked tirelessly to keep a media spotlight on the issue and coordinated lawyers and frontline groups to get people removed from the flights. In recognition of her brave efforts, Zita was the 2022 runner up for SMK’s Campaigner of the Year Award.  Zita’s approach demonstrates what SMK believes is missing from lots of campaigning – a new style of intuitive leadership shaped by those at the frontline. This is not just a hunch. SMK spent a year uncovering evidence of what makes successful changemakers across the UK. Our findings were summarised in our ground-breaking Social Power report.  This included our 12 Habits of Successful Changemakers. Recently, we reworked this broad profile into an activist leader’s model outlined below.  

What is activist leadership? 

  1. creative & brave thinking 
  2. flexible & adaptive 
  3. passionate & principled 
  4. values driven & determined 
  5. embracing risk & complexity 
  6. non-conformist & instinctive
  7. ready for broad collaboration  

Campaigner stories confirm an emerging model 

Jake is a local campaigner with an instinctive grasp of bold ideas. He saw the benefit of the Campaign Carousel training as ‘jumping onto new things’ and says SMK has ‘helped to fill in gaps in my knowledge.’ One of his workshop trainers put him in touch with local academics, who he’s now in exploratory talks with about a possible legal campaign collaboration. He was so inspired to meet others committed to social change that he has set up a WhatsApp group with others also ‘riding’ the Campaign Carousel.  With his creative instinct for broader collaborations, Jake is ripe for activist leadership.  

But there’s still room for growth 

SMK has found that Jake and other Campaign Carousel riders are already confident in some of the activist leader approaches, including being passionate and principled. However, embracing risk and taking a broader approach to collaboration are two consistent challenges. One Carousel rider told us they wanted to see charities giving supporters and donors the option to support braver directions. Although riders can see the importance of collaboration, one acknowledged that ‘it’s just easier to keep running on same treadmill.’ Some charities – notably those with more rigid top-down structures – were called out by riders for their lack of willingness to reaching out to others, especially where there is an identifiable power imbalance. Many charities still fear failure rather than seeing risk-taking as a route to a bolder approach.  

Where SMK is taking this next 

It is clear to SMK that activist leadership is a key route to driving successful social change. Our Annual Campaigner Awards spotlights many successful activist leaders in action. We now need leaders much further up the campaigning food chain to recognise its worth. Imagine a whole cadre of Zita Holbournes leading our movement for real social change. SMK believes that is worth investing in. 

Kath Christie

Kath Christie is Head of Programmes at SMK.



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