I really enjoyed Andrew Purkis’ blog last week showcasing the power of charity campaigning with a great example from the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (now Action on Hearing Loss – love their rebrand by the way). I liked the framing of the campaign within an idea of partnership between charity and government, with a view to creating meaningful change. And as a former Policy Officer with a large-ish charity, and a general fan of the democratic and expert role that the voluntary sector can and should play, I definitely support the message that we need to be standing up for this campaigning role.

Purkis’ point is, rightly, to defend the big charity, so often a focal point for criticism, and its role in campaigning. The example is of a large charity, with, as Purkis puts it, its concentrated passion, deep knowledge of user experience, 300,000 supporters and diversified funding base, professional staff and expert allies, long term staying power and its status as ‘a great national charity’. In the spirit of sharing good stories I’d like to add in an example from the other end of the spectrum to show how diverse the campaigning field can be, and how powerful. As a sector, indeed as a bunch of people, I think we can sometimes feel that successful campaigning can’t be done unless you’re one of the big guys. Likewise I think small charities and groups can sometimes get pigeon-holed as mutual aid, shared interest or hobby groups (all of which exist and are great, obviously), ignoring the fact that they can also be an incredible force for driving change. IC Change is a great example of doing just that.

I can’t remember exactly how I got involved in IC Change (although I think wine was involved). A friend, Robyn Boosey, had set up the campaign with two other amazing women, Rebecca Bunce and Rachel Nye, in 2014. The idea was to get Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a comprehensive strategy for ending violence against women and domestic violence. The UK signed the Convention in 2012, but has been dragging its feet on ratification, meaning the protections it promises aren’t yet written into law. These three women didn’t think this was good enough, and decided to do something about it. They started to build partnerships with women’s organisations across the UK, write letters to ministers, and even sent some birthday treats – cards and retro mix tapes – to the Home Office. And they roped all of their friends in to help – I started by glancing at a couple of policy submissions for them and ended running social media. They had to because they were all volunteers – the three of them all have day jobs and have funded these activities almost exclusively from their own pockets. I’ll rudely speak for everyone, I think we were happy to volunteer because, as much as it is a cause we all care about, they are fantastic, passionate leaders who leave you believing you really can make a difference.

Then an SNP MP called Eilidh Whiteford got the chance to create a Private Members Bill, and decided to bring one on the Istanbul Convention. This was an incredible opportunity to get Government to step up and into action. We had lots of things on our side; we had cross-party support, we had a great team of volunteers doing graphics, photography, campaign materials, policy, social media, press work and more, we knew the Government was interested in tackling violence against women and we had those partnerships the three Rs had spent two years building up. What we needed was 100 MPs to come to the Bill debate, in order to stop it getting talked out (as so often happens with PMBs). The partnership kept growing and so did our supporter numbers. The Women’s Aid organisations across the UK were on board early on, as were Sisters of Frida, Southall Black Sisters and others. During the build-up to the PMB there was support from the Women’s Institute, Girlguiding UK, Fawcett Society, EHRC and the Women’s Equality Party, among many others (plus Emma Watson. Which was amazing.) WEP was able to mobilise a national network of party members, alongside our existing supporters, to hassle their MPs to turn up to the 2nd reading and vote in favour of the Bill which made a huge difference. On the day 137 MPs showed up, which meant a vote could be called, which meant the Bill passed through to Committee Stage, where it is now. This is a huge win. Once it’s finished we hope the Act will provide a timetable for ratification, and an annual reporting requirement on ending violence against women.

So, what made this one work, and what can we learn from it? I’ve touched on some of these already, but they’re worth looking at a bit more. So here goes.

  • We took advantage of a policy window… Just to put my MA learnin’ to use, this was a good example of an identifiable problem, a policy solution and a favourable political context coming together to open a policy window. Violence against women costs the state £15.8 billion a year in services and lost productivity – there’s your problem. The Istanbul Convention offers a comprehensive strategy for ending violence against women; the Government signed this four and a half years ago so it’s one they are on board with (they’d just gotten stuck…). And the positive political environment came courtesy of cross-party support, profile in the media, probably a sympathetic Prime Minister and, crucially, from us in civil society.
  • …but we were a key part of creating that window. Us, our volunteers and supporters, our partners, faith groups – civil society made a huge noise about why Government needed to get moving on this. We helped create a political context where Government would have faced significant criticism from inside and outside their own party had they not made some kind of commitment, by raising the profile of the Convention and the Bill in the media and among MPs. This didn’t happen overnight; it took two years and many Parliamentary Questions before we started to see a shift, but see a shift we did.
  • You don’t need loads of money to make change… One of my worries with this campaign was that we didn’t have handy tech tools like Engaging Networks which can make contacting supporters so much easier. Actually it didn’t matter at all. We emailed our supporters, our partners emailed theirs, we tweeted and facebooked endlessly and it all got results. We don’t know how many people contacted their MPs. We do know that they changed MPs minds, raised their awareness and made them as passionate as they were about this cause.
  • …but a little bit helps. We had a couple of pub quizzes to raise a little bit of money, and a lot came out of the pockets of the three. We had to pay, collectively or individually, for tea and coffee in the House of Lords, t-shirts for supporters, printing of briefings, posters and signs, banners (which I accidentally broke), train fares and so on. The point is there are some costs, which do add up, and which you don’t always think about. I would love to see more trusts offering small grants programme for community activism (community in the place and people sense) to make it easier for more people to do this kind of thing – whether or not they get what they’re campaigning for – because it’s such a great way to play an active part in democracy (Lush actually already has a pot for this. If you know of any others let me know!).
  • Social media is amazing. Although it takes a huge amount of coordination – by the last two weeks I was working full-time on it (sorry, PhD supervisors…). We did face some criticism from an MP that we were just encouraging ‘clicktivism’ and failing to engage in real activism. I think we need to be careful not to overstate the role of social media, and with this campaign there was a lot of other work going on behind the scenes. But we also have to be really careful not to dismiss it. Our online campaigners were amazing and we saw MPs change their minds in real-time after a good amount of twitter engagement. MPs tweeting their support meant other MPs saw it and supported in turn. It brought more campaigners on board who started to feel encouraged that they could get their MP to commit too. And I’ll never forget the moment Emma Watson retweeted a bunch of the campaign tweets and my tweetdeck went into total meltdown. Crumbs. A fairly cheap Facebook ad also helped bring us a good chunk of new ‘likes’, as did an amazing post by someone who actually wasn’t directly involved in the campaign but was really on board with the message – Susie’s post got shared hundreds of times with completely new audiences. Finally, it’s one form of campaigning among many, but one that’s open to some people who can’t engage in IRL forms of activism; some of our brilliant volunteers have disabilities, some people who want to campaign have kids or complicated lives, which means they can find it difficult to go door-knocking or attend meetings or have long days set in the diary. If they have access to the internet, then it’s another way to engage.
  • Volunteers are amazing. Most of this campaign was done entirely on volunteer power, and credit to Robyn, Rachel and Rebecca who managed us all brilliantly. It was an incredibly intense campaign but there were always opportunities to take a break, to check in, to self-care. We always made sure we thanked people for the time and effort they were giving, whether in real life or on social media, which kept them posting, following, sharing and writing to their MPs.

This campaign does have a little way to go – the Bill still needs to get through the rest of the parliamentary process, and then we need a bit more legislation before the Istanbul Convention is finally ratified. And, of course, then we need to make sure Government delivers on prevention, protection and prosecution requirements. But we’ve got a huge step closer. Small, informal, unregistered volunteer groups can be powerful agents for change, just like the big folk. I’m proud to have been a part of this one.

If you want to see some of the action, check out the Storify from the Istanbul Convention Bill’s 2nd reading here.

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