by | Sep 24, 2020

The ‘new’ SMK: Unleashing Social Power

Fifteen years ago, SMK was set up in memory of Sheila McKechnie – the brilliant, fearless and tireless campaigner who, in her own words, was a “fully paid up member of the awkward squad”. In our new brand, launched today, we have drawn deeply on the spirit of Sheila, channeling her energy, her spirit and her determination. We hope you like it.

At inception, SMK’s founding idea was to celebrate and support up and coming campaigners. We still do this, of course. We are celebrating our fifteenth SMK National Campaigner Awards in a virtual ceremony on the 30th September (please do join us!). More information here.

Yet setting up SMK did something else too: it recognised that campaigning is a discipline – a way of working, a trade or profession, even – that can be taught and supported. This is so important. For an activity that so many fall into, and often undertake without pay or support, establishing SMK offered campaigners a sense of identity, status and community. The perfect tribute to Sheila, and something we feel absolutely passionate about to this day.

While it may have been the first, SMK today is part of a vibrant and growing marketplace of support for campaigners – which is great to see. And the world around us is very different too. For both reasons, it felt important for us to review our focus after fifteen years, asking “what role can we play now to make the biggest possible difference?’.

Our thinking has been centrally influenced by The Social Power report we published two years ago. This drew on a two-year conversation that we had with a great many people and organisations drawn from right across civil society asking how social change is happening today, and how civil society could be strengthened.

We learnt – or were reminded – that civil society is at the heart of much transformational change in society – whether turning an individual life around, ensuring new legal protections or changing social attitudes and norms. Civil society is a place of experience, wisdom, creativity and energy that, when working at best, holds an immense capacity for change. We coined the term ‘Social Power’ to express this capacity for change. And SMK exists today to unleash it.

Or role in Unleashing Social Power takes three forms:

We Champion: we work to advocate for the reforming role of civil society and defend its right to campaign. Some will know of our work evidencing the impact of the Lobbying Act and will take part in our annual Campaigners Survey. We aim to do much more to protect civic space. It is part of the job of civil society to be awkward, to be difficult, to get in the way and governments – particularly this one – tend not to like it. Part of our job at SMK is to defend these rights and freedoms.

We are Curious: strategy is much stronger when we can proceed from knowledge and experience. Yet here in the UK, our sector lacks good critical analysis of how social change is happening. At SMK, we are working to fill that gap by continually interrogating how change happens, and asking others to share their experiences. Our Change Network events explore past successes (so far we have explored equal marriage and abortion rights in Northern Ireland, the reduction in youth custody, climate divestment, the increased profile of women’s sport and the ‘saving’ of the Joiners Arms – the LGBTQ+ pub – all captured on the Social Power podcast).  We also host flagship projects that seek to deepen engagement and learning, such as our Power Sharing Project taking place now.

We Capacity-Build: to come back to our roots, we then use all of this learning and evidence to help build the knowledge, skills and confidence of others. We run our own training programme and offer bespoke training to commission working with a very wide range of audiences. Last year, for example, we worked with young people; those with lived experience of mental health; those working in the community; communities; other in big national and international charities – and from volunteers to senior managers and trustees. We also offer consultancy using our bespoke tools to help teams and organisations re-think their approach to change – for their whole organisation or for a particular campaign. We do all of this with our brilliant network of Associates, themselves some of the most experienced campaigners and strategists in town.

Our new vision that these three strands of work are driving towards is “a more confident and powerful civil society in which people work together to drive social change“. The current Covid-19 pandemic and its impact has brought into sharp focus just how vital civil society and the social sector within it is. We’re very much looking forward to doing all we can to support civil society and unleash social power. But we wouldn’t be able to do any of it without our community of change-makers, who are willing to learn, share and explore together, and of course to those who fund and support us in various ways. Thank you to everyone who has joined us on our journey so far. Here’s to you, to SMK and its future, and to Sheila and keeping her sprit alive!

Sue Tibballs

Sue is the Chief Executive of SMK



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