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Grassroots campaigning – a ‘bottom-up’ approach

9 March 2015

Charities risk being completely sidestepped by supporters and campaigners unless they put the final nail in the coffin of “we know best”.

In the not too recent past, campaigning followed a traditional top-down approach, with charity professionals pulling together campaign aims and approaches, perhaps leavened with some form of consultation, before presenting a fully formed campaign to a grateful audience of campaigners and supporters who beavered away to make them happen.

Social media has increased the opportunity and power of self-organising, leading to an emerging trend of grassroots, micro-level campaigning activity. This creates new challenges for campaigning charities if they are to remain relevant and influential.

Any campaign must now be in ‘beta’ when first engaging potential supporters; they need to feel they have a say in how it develops. Campaigns can’t always start with the organisation: the most entrepreneurial need to develop their capacity to incubate campaigns started by supporters. Riding the wave of a viral campaign means putting egos and brand aside – not the easiest, but a most rewarding action.

Take the work of fundraiser Katie Cutler, who set up an online donation page for Alan Barnes, a disabled man who was mugged outside his home in Gateshead. She hoped to raise a few hundred pounds – donations now stand at more than £324,000, with the two planning to launch their own charitable foundation.

Shining a spotlight on grassroots campaigns and campaigners is the main reason Forster Communications sponsored the 10th Anniversary Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) Awards. SMK is the UK’s only charity dedicated to connecting, informing and supporting campaigners. The awards celebrate the work of people inspiring change across areas from tax evasion to transport.

Sheila left behind a huge legacy when she died of cancer aged 55 in 2004, particularly through her work at both Shelter and the Consumers’ Association (now Which?); organisations with campaigning at their heart. 

This year, the People’s Choice Award recognised nominees such as Lindsey Garrett and the New Era Tenant’s Association, who campaigned successfully against their East London estate being sold to a consortium led by the richest MP in Parliament, Richard Benyon.

Lindsey and others helped ensure the estate would be bought by an affordable housing provider, saving 93 families from eviction. It’s a reminder that the voice of the crowd can often be the most important tool of all. 

In the day-to-day, nitty gritty of planning and meetings, it can be easy to forget the driving force behind your charity’s work – engaging with and empowering your stakeholders, being the facilitator and providing the right canvas. These are the roles campaigning organisations should be taking on if they want to remain at the centre of campaigning in the UK and elsewhere.

Get busy sharing and supporting or face a future as an onlooker.

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To change behaviour, you need to look beyond the obvious

Peter Gilheany

charity director, Forster Communications

Peter is charity director at Forster Communications, the social change PR agency. He has spent 25 years working with and for charities on communicating around social change, from developing the Gift Aid It brand back in 2001 to creating the strategy for the movement to tackle loneliness in 2018. Along the way, he has worked with almost every high profile charity in the UK, writes regularly about communications issues affecting charities in Third Sector and PR Week and is a former trustee of CharityComms.