Make campaigners history? The impact of large scale campaigns

In 1985 Live Aid changed the way people thought about and participated in campaigning.  For the first time in history, activism was not confined to the zealous few devoting their lives to the cause; the campaign opened up participation to all, and in doing so, made people feel that their actions could make a difference and indeed ‘feed the world’.  The success of this campaign saw rise to other mass campaigns; Children in Need and Comic Relief became annual TV bonanzas, raising millions of pounds for their chosen cause.  More recently, the movements have taken a new direction; instead of a primary aim of raising money, global campaigns now aim at raising awareness, and demanding answers of the powers that be. 

In 2005, Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign showed a new level of global activism; over 3 billion people watched it on TV and 31 million people in 85 countries took part in some kind of demonstration.  Many can remember where they were as people all over the globe held hands, and rock stars took part in simultaneous concerts to raise awareness.  Whatever its actual outcomes, many people now remember this as much for the spawning of the wristband phenomena, the popularity and visibility of which were quickly appreciated and adopted by anyone trying to spread a message, and almost as quickly transformed to fashion items which now can be bought in packs in accessories shops, and no longer stand for anything in particular.

The latest, and largest, of these grand campaigns was Stand Up and Take Action.  In October this year, over 116 million people ‘stood up’ against poverty, taking part in over 2,000 events, demonstrating their support for this global campaign, and trying to ensure that global leaders keep the promises made as part of the Millennium Development Goals.  It seems that with the continued rise of the global citizen, these mass campaigns are growing in size.  But are they growing in impact?  And where does the future lie?

Perhaps we should look at the effectiveness of these campaigns to do this.  Live Aid, Children in Need and Comic Relief all focused on raising money, and to this end have been very successful: Live Aid is estimated to have raised over £150 million for famine relief; last year Children in Need raised £37 million, whilst Comic Relief raised over £40 million.  But what impact will the credit crunch have on this?  The answers will become clear after this week’s Children in Need event.

The latest in poverty campaigns had a different agenda; raising awareness and securing action from world leaders.  Live 8 raised the agenda on the political sphere and secured promises from the 2006 G8 summit, including that by 2010 there would be:

  • $50billion more international aid per year
  • debt cancellation for 38 countries (18 in 2006)
  • aids drugs to all who need them and care for all AIDS orphans

So far debt has been cancelled as promised for 18 countries, but aid is not increasing at the rate it needs to in order to meet this promise.  And UNAIDS estimates that $22billion per year is needed to fight HIV and AIDS throughout the world.

But what about the latest and greatest?  Over 116 million people may have taken part this year, but did it really register on people’s radars?  And what have been the actual outcomes of this?  Checking their website shows little evidence that the campaign has achieved anything other than a large number of people taking part.  But is this the key to success? Raising awareness is a means to an end, and not an end in itself in campaigning for social change.

So what does the future hold?

With people’s increasingly hectic lifestyles, the rise of individualism, and with the credit crunch fastening its hold on many people, it seems these new campaigns are on the right track.  Recent movements are for individuals to take action, however small, in the belief that all combined make a huge difference.  This appeals for a number of reasons: a large number of small events is easier to organise than a small number of large events; large numbers of people are more effective than few (especially when supported by a vocal number of superstars); and it is achievable and satisfying for individuals.  This kind of activism is most frequently used by advocates for climate change and poverty, but can be just as effective for any campaign, and seems to be on the rise.

Which leaves just a few questions for your organisation:

  • Are there organisations in other countries operating in similar environments that you could learn from?
  • Some institutions are harder to influence than others; could working in collaboration increase your effectiveness?
  • How can you best tap into global citizens and mass campaigns to fulfil the aims of your organisation?
  • Are you clear about what you are trying to change? How can your actions contribute towards achieving this?
Last updated at 16:17 Wed 12/Aug/09.
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Caroline’s article outlines a number of interesting developments within the campaigning landscape and raises some important questions for campaigning organisations to think about as they plan their future work.

I would like to pick up on a few key themes:

- Giving is not the same as activism

It is important to distinguish between fundraising campaigns and campaigns for social change. Whereas Children in Need and Comic Relief are ultimately large scale fundraising efforts, Make Poverty History and Stand Up and Take Action are about securing commitments to social and economic change. They are therefore essentially different in what they are trying to achieve and how they are trying to mobilise individuals i.e. whether to give or to act.

The distinction between giving and activism is an important one. In fact, campaigns like Make Poverty History have been premised on the fact that charity in its traditional sense of the word is simply not enough. MPH was a campaign about social and economic justice that demanded wholesale changes in the global economic system in order to address the underlying causes of poverty – not simply throwing more money at the problem.

Whilst there are obviously important links between giving and activism – individual giving can provide a pathway into activism and vice versa – campaigning organisations need to appreciate the differences between the two, be clear what their campaigns are trying to achieve and target activities appropriately.

- Campaigning is not just about awareness raising

A second important distinction to make is between awareness raising and campaigning. Raising the profile of pressing social, economic and environmental issues forms a critical element of any campaign; how can individuals take action if they don’t know what the problem is in the first place? However, informing people and getting an issue on the agenda is not the same as bringing about change: it is a means to this end rather than an end in itself.

Recent large-scale campaigns have made great strides in raising the profile of certain issues, be it global poverty, the Iraq War or climate change. Their messages have reached parts not reached before. However, the ultimate measure of their success, is not based on the number of celebrity endorsements received, wristbands worn or concerts given, but on whether they actually secure the changes they want to see.

-The rise of the globalised individual

The article raises a really interesting issue about the rise of individualism and its impact on campaigning. If recent large-scale campaigns have illustrated anything, it is that there are a lot of passionate, opinionated individuals out there who have a vision about the world they want to live in and a commitment to making it happen. So whilst engagement with formal party politics might be on the wane, political activism in its broader sense certainly isn’t.

These campaigns have also shown it is possible to mobilise a much younger demographic than ever before. This presents huge opportunities for campaigning organisations to engage with this ready-made audience. However, this is not without its challenges. Trends suggest that the modern day activist is more likely to engage in campaigning on an issue-by-issue basis, rather than through formal affiliation with a particular institution or organisation. What this means in practice is that individuals may campaign on climate change in a personal capacity but might not necessarily become a member of an environmental organisation. This more fluid, individualised approach to campaigning could have major implications for membership-based campaigning organisations that rely on an active supporter base – and membership fees – for their existence and success.

Campaigning organisations also need to consider how they engage with the modern day, globalised activist. Local campaign groups may give way to virtual communities on Facebook and Bebo, public meetings to Twitter and traditional marches to flashmobbing. To what extent are campaigning organisations making the most of new communication technologies to reach out to new audiences?

- Size doesn’t matter

Where I think the article slightly misses the point is talking about small scale campaigning in the same breath as individualism. Individualised campaigning may result in more localised forms of campaigning, but it may equally result in large scale campaigns (is not the recent Obama election campaign an example of this?).

Whether you are acting alone, with a small group or as part of a global coalition, is beside the point. The same goes for whether you are trying to change the whole world or your little bit of it: it’s not the size of your campaign that matters; it’s what you do with it that counts!

Or to end with the rather more eloquent words of Margaret Mead,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Jess's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Campaigning organisations also need to consider how they engage with the modern day, globalised activist

I couldn't agree more Rachael. As mentioned in a recent interview with BBC Tees, social and technological trends constantly change, so just because something worked fantastically well 20 years ago, doesn't mean that it will be as effective now, or in 20 years' time.

I think a great example of a campaign that expertly tapped into the emerging trends identified by Caroline above is the recent Climate Camp phenomenon, particularly in the case of the Heathrow camp held in 2007. This campaign not only attracted plenty of media attention, but also galvanised political action, and bolstered support for less visible but more established campaigns, such as those run by Greenpeace, Plane Stupid and NOTRAG.

When you break down some of the key techniques used by Climate Camp, it's easy to see why one event held in 2007 had mushroomed into ten by 2009:

  • Focused on a single issue in a single location, at a single event
  • Used new technologies to communicate and organise (Twitter, sms, mobile phone cameras)
  • Linked the local (Heathrow) to the global (climate change)
  • Encouraged active participation through direct action and a devolved organisational structure

All of these techniques tap directly into the emerging trends outlined by Caroline above, and could easily be replicated, or used to inform, future campaigns run by other organisations.

There are plenty of other examples of campaigns that owe their success, in part, to an accurate analysis of emerging trends (the iHobo campaign recently discussed by Caroline springs to mind). So, the question remains, what lessons can you take away from these successes?

Campaigning Futures

This is something Foresight will be taking a special interest in over the next few months, in preparation for an upcoming Campaigning Futures seminar on 28th October 2010. This event will offer the opportunity to hear more about the trends likely to affect future campaigns, and offer an insight into the work of campaigners who are already using emerging trends to their own advantage.

If you’re interested in finding out more about what the future holds for campaigning, you can email to reserve you place at our next seminar, or take a look at our Future Focus guide on the subject.

Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

I frequently attend events which look at the relationship between blossoming new technologies and communication and campaigning. The most recent of which was Charity Comm's Fit for the Future event. Although focussed on the role of communications, there is a very close connection between campaigning and communicating – where do you draw the line between them? So there was a fair amount of discussion around how people are using these developments to campaign. If you read any websites, blogs or magazines (did I just refer to hardcopy?!) about new technology there are numerous examples of organisations campaigning using technology. See for example, the RAF benevolent fund's social media campaign bringing characters to life, or Nikon's very web 2.0-y site to support their campaign for the Singapore Children's Society

Essentially new technologies are more direct and engaging ways to reach and stimulate action in new and existing audiences. Techniques such as experiential, social media and web 2.0 technologies, can be used by most (if not all) campaigners to strengthen their campaigns.

However, I don’t run campaigns myself so my viewpoint is a somewhat distant one. I’d like to know what campaigns you’ve run using new technologies and if it was useful?

You might also like to have a look at this: Unleashing the power of live broadcasting which outlines some of the ways that individuals and organisations can use the new opportunities of a camera, a laptop and an internet connection, to broadcast live.

Jess's picture


Third Sector Foresight

If you're interested in looking into how web technologies and other emerging mass engagement techniques could impact on your future campaigns, book onto our breakfast seminar, Campaigning Futures: What will campaigning look like in 5 years’ time?

Issues we’ll be covering include

  • The rise of social media and citizen journalism
  • Fast changing expectations of participation
  • "Controlling the message” in a viral communications era

Speakers confirmed so far include Amy Sample Ward, Netsquared (videolink), and Dan Glass, Plane Stupid.

You can get more info and book on the NCVO website.

Join the discussion!

How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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