The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders and invite you to do the same.
Habit #4: nurture the persistence required of campaigners on constantly shifting political sands
Achieving social change can be a long and difficult process. An organisation building its persistence and resilience in pursuit of change must consider this habit on a number of levels.
Firstly, you cannot persist if there is constant internal pressure to change priorities, so the change you are seeking needs to make sense to everyone. This will be easier if it is anchored firmly to your mission. Its reasoning needs to be clear to the organisation, the people it serves, its supporters and its staff. A theory of change, straightforward or complex, will help you keep your destination in sight.
Secondly, perseverance must be clearly valued. Be prepared to commit to making a change over the long-term, not switching your campaigns every year to keep things ‘fresh’ for supporters or to provide media coverage. The Networked Change report observed that ‘unseen by most observers, many of the most successful major advocacy campaigns we studied spent years building up power, scaling their networks and honing their story away from the limelight before they broke into national consciousness and scored dramatic victories’. Vocal leadership that recognises staying power as a virtue will give staff confidence and motivation – ensure your board and senior managers understand this.
Thirdly, make sure your organisational systems recognise that campaigns don’t follow a clear and straight path. Business planning, budget setting, performance appraisals, and impact evaluation all tend to assume pre-planned outputs. Yes, you need a strategy. Yes, you need to identify the optimum route to change. But create a culture that regards changing plans and shifting tactics a feature, not a bug. I turn again to the excellent No Royal Road by Jim Coe and Rhonda Schlangen, which explores how evaluation can genuinely take into account the inherent uncertainties around how social and political change happens.
Finally, look for ways to build your campaigners’ resilience. Celebrate sheer determination, encourage proportionate risk-taking and maintain creativity. Expecting one human being to embody all the best characteristics of successful campaigners is a lot to ask. Where can you bring in extra support or inspiration? How can you maintain morale? Past instances of change show us that vital breakthroughs often only occur after years of hard work. The Brexit Leave movement spent forty years doing just this, while the Remain campaign scrambled to catch up in the months before the referendum. Help your campaigners to remember that persistence now is laying the ground for future success.
Working for change can be tiring, under-resourced and feel unrelenting. Make the journey, not just the victory, count.
Previous blog in the series: Habit #3, being adaptive and responsive