Why campaigners need to expect failure, and how to learn from it

Naomi Phillips, Director of Policy and Advocacy, British Red CrossNaomi Phillips has been director of policy and advocacy at the British Red Cross since 2017, and is part of the organisation’s strategic leadership team. Naomi heads up the UK policy, research and advocacy department, which covers priority areas of health and care, refugees and vulnerable migrants, first aid and emergency response. She has worked in the public and voluntary sectors for 15 years.

Naomi will be one of the speakers on our popular seven-day campaigning course, the Certificate in Campaigning.

Have I failed if my campaign doesn’t make the headlines? How do I admit it’s time to cut our losses and end a campaign? Why won’t the executive team give our plans the go-ahead?

Those were just some of the questions raised by delegates at the NCVO annual Campaigning Conference, in a special session titled ‘When campaigns go wrong: what I learned from my mistakes’. I was invited to join as an expert, ahem.

I’ve worked in not-for-profit sectors for 15 years and have had the privilege of heading the policy and advocacy teams in four national charities, diverse in their size and aims. Of course, in that time I have made my share of mistakes. From the cringe-worthy mismanagement of a press call, where I failed to ask for help early enough, to an excruciating dressing down from a minister (more than once!) when advocacy messages didn’t land quite as I might have hoped.

Ahead of the NCVO conference I also crowdsourced examples from colleagues from their pasts, when it just all went totally wrong. Poor decisions on photoshoots, failing to do proper background checks on a conference speaker, engaging the wrong stakeholders with the wrong messaging, and more.  They can laugh about it now, just about.

To get people warmed up, the panel shared a whole range of mistakes, changes of plan, and approaches that went wrong. The nods and laughter from the floor indicated many could relate from their own experience.

In talking about mistakes, we’re covering the broad range from tactical errors (like some of the above), to strategies that really miss the mark, because influencing is an imperfect science.

Changing our approach to mistakes

The good news is that, in this line of work, mistakes are rarely the end of the world and almost always can be turned into learning points. But that is easier said than done and, as one campaigner asked, how can we really move away from blaming individuals or circumstances to moving forward?

One way is always to celebrate success – however small. We have an actual bell that we ring at our desks when we have victories in our advocacy: everything from big wins like changing the curriculum to getting a thank you from an MP.

Another way is to make failure a shared endeavour from which to learn. As well as not being life threatening, it’s rare that an unsuccessful project or poor results will be down to one person. Take comfort in the fact that you are (usually) in it together and work to improve as a team.

At the British Red Cross, we put huge effort, including months of research, into our policy reports. The importance of integrated planning with other departments, in order to have the evidence we need and the best chances of influencing externally, can’t be understated either. But it’s easy to make mistakes on the inevitably-hectic day of publication, when we’re trying to juggle various communications channels, manage internal stakeholders, and secure that piece of media coverage on which our success might be measured. So, we’ve built in review time one week, one month and three months after each report. We look at our data and, later, whether we’ve secured the changes we wanted to see. We also have open sessions across teams about what could have gone better.

Recognising failure in your strategy

One of my co-panellists Pete Moorey, formerly of Which? and now leading digital campaigns at BT, made a comment that really resonated. He suggested that we are in the business of failing. The basic premise is that our strategies are theories and, in testing them, we are likely not to win all the time, not least because as campaigners we work with issues and within systems of high complexity. Logic modelling – usually a theory of change approach – is sweeping across the sector and making a difference in helping us to focus on the outcomes we’re aiming for, not only the day-to-day efforts. But it’s no guarantee in itself of success.

So, not only can we learn and grow from our influencing errors, we need to accept that we are going to fail many times on the path to success. But while we may make mistakes, we are far from reckless.

It’s rare to meet a charity campaigner who doesn’t plan and risk-assess, while agonising over every penny in the budget. But being more open about when things go badly could help us to have conversations with those we need to support our work about what’s realistic, what outcomes we might see in a best, medium and worst-case scenario, and how long it’s going to take to effect real change on the issues for which we advocate.

Let’s not be afraid to unlock the creativity in our sector, and keep learning, even if that means things don’t always go to plan – our causes are too important not to keep trying.


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