Campaigning ‘with’ rather than ‘for’: do campaigns need to be led by those affected by the issue?

By Drew Lindon

For charities, there’s a common consensus out there that your influencing approach is most effective if has been created by, or with the support of, the people you’re there to benefit. Indeed, most charity campaigners I’ve met would agree that a major part of their role is to amplify, empower and champion the voices of people affected by an issue. If possible, people who’ve had direct experience of a specific issue – be it discrimination, ill health, prison life, etc. – will also be deeply involved in all significant campaigning activities too.

For example, say you want to campaign for a new cancer drug to be offered on the NHS. This aim usually should have been discussed and agreed with people affected by cancer. Doing that has two benefits. First, if the engagement and planning is done well, you can be assured you’re campaigning for something that’s actually needed and would help your supporters. Second, especially if your supporters are visibly involved throughout the campaign itself, this helps protect against opponent criticism that your issue is the wrong one.

So in taking this approach, you’re campaigning ‘with’ your supporters, rather than ‘for’. At one extreme, your organisation may be do very little campaigning itself, and just be provide supporters the tools to run their own campaigns, as with organisations like 38Degrees.

However, sometimes engaging people directly affected by the issue is not possible or easy. For example, if you are campaigning against solitary confinement, you may struggle to speak to prisoners currently in that situation, though you may be able to reach former prisoners, or the families of those currently imprisoned.

And how important is it for supporters or activists directed associated with your campaign to be seen ‘on the front lines’? It varies, but this is an issue which bears thinking about. For example, in September 2016, nine Black Lives Matter UK activists staged a protest at London City Airport, but much of the coverage focused on the fact that all nine protesters were white (see our videos on this movement here and here). Whatever your views on Black Lives Matter and the movement’s aims, it is always worth thinking about how your campaign or issue can be (mis)represented in coverage, and who is perceived to be ‘doing’ the campaigning.