I have been asked too many times what should a member of a NGO look for in that NGO if they want to bring about policy and legal changes.
I have taken the start of the summer vacation to write down 10 things I would look for.
I enjoy changing public policy and laws. I have done this for more than 20 years in Brussels for most sides of the table. My remarks are directed to work in Brussels. They may apply elsewhere.
I have worked and advised NGOs on campaigns and lobbying. My success rate of getting what the campaign wanted is high.
I have also helped clients deal with NGO interest. Again, those clients have done well.
- Do what it says on the label
NGO members and donors need to know what is happening with their money.
Donors investing in a campaign can’t wake up and read that their money has been used elsewhere. NGOs have to have first rate financial systems in place.
If a NGO is focused on conservation field work why not stick to it. The further a NGO moves away from the original purpose, the more confused things will be.
Getting into policy and lobbying may be considered fun at the time. But, it is not something to be done flippantly. If you are in, it is a long-term investment – 10 years minimum – and if you can’t stick to that, it is best to keep out.
- Have a proposal that adds up
I have read, written and reviewed proposals that are excellent examples of gobbledygook.
Too often, an organisation will lay claim to change policy or laws in ways that really will only deliver if divine intervention happens.
It is better to be honest to yourself, your members and donors. Explain what you can do, be honest what you can’t do, and highlight the chances of success and failure.
A great curse is to claim to be able to do everything single handily within one organisation. It is usually, at best, self-deception. As with my all my attempts to persuade people that I am tall, dark and attractive, people (even the blind) quickly see through it.
Instead, be up front and honest. Suggest going into partnership with other organisation, or bringing on board other expertise as and when needed.
It is amazing that NGOs seem to ignore that the gig economy is prospering. You can bring on genuine experts in the field – lawyers, economists, web designer, media departments, scientists – all through the power of contact. It helps keep a NGO slim and focused, and it allows you to get some of the best expertise on board when you need it.
- Failure is okay
I am from the left. I have been brought up being happily surprised with victory. It’s not that usual.
I have learned a lot from failure. It has helped me improve and refine my campaign and lobbying model.
If a NGO claims it has never lost, they are faking it, or worked on things so easy it is not worth mentioning.
- We are living in the 21st Century
Too many NGOs want to emulate early 1970s oil firms. Big offices in prime locations. It is like technology has not entered into their lives.
Slack, Fiscal note, skype all allow the campaign to be run and won with little infrastructure, except a good 4G connection, Wi-Fi, and trust in the team.
Personally, I’d have no issue with a demand to wear a go-pro whilst working. I just hope people don’t mind the swearing.
Here I get into dangerous territory. I believe in political campaigns. I think they work. In fact, I know they work. They can move mountains. They have forced through amazing changes. They continue to do so.
But, too many NGOs now pretend to be management consultants, producing McKinsey reports that hardly any one reads. If they not doing that, they are instead being change management gurus to companies to support them.
I think trying to have so many skill sets in one organisation is at best tough, and in all likelihood impossible.
Management consultants and change management gurus can all be contracted in. NGOs should focus and do what they do well.
I think it makes sense for NGOs to partner with firms on particular issues. It works well if they have a common goal. If the joint advocacy comes at the expense of a serious weakening of positioning, it is best to walk away. You’ll not sound genuine in meetings and the truth will come out.
The really sad thing is that many NGO leaders don’t even believe in campaigns, let alone political campaigns. There is a selective amnesia of the great progress since the 1970s that has all been brought by the actions of, often, a small group of men and women taking on daunting odds, overcoming unsurmountable vested political interests, and winning.
- 80/20 Principle
There is an easy way for a donor to know if they are investing in the right organisation. Just ask the leadership of the organisation how many hours they worked last week and how much of that time they spent in internal meetings.
Lobbyists and campaigners need to be spend around 80% of their time out of the office. They need to be focused on devising winning strategies and getting the project funded properly. After that, they need to spend most of their time on focused campaign implementation.
Too many NGOs spend too much time in inner dialogue – or belly button gazing as I prefer to call it – and this all comes at the expense of campaigning and winning.
If you find such an organisation that ignores the 80/20 principle, walk away.
- Take advantage of events or create the events
Unless you have the gift to look forward in time, events never go the way you wrote them down in your plan. It is vital to be flexible.
For me, the two most useful things I learned are:
- Have a draft Bill in the filing cabinet
- Have a briefing in the filing cabinet and supporting studies
I have experienced many cases when the first time around raising the issue, politicians and regulators were not interested in the issue. But, after an accident or press coverage (FT and Sunday Times work wonders) , the phone rings off the hook, with request for meetings. I have found new funding, policy changes and laws being tabled and adopted coming soon after.
None of this would have happened, if I had stuck doggedly to then plan or not had the draft bill, briefing and supporting studies filed away, ready to be handed over to a now enthusiastic politician.
- Gobbledygook does not work
Too many NGOs (and policy experts in general) have taken up a language that only a small group of men and women understand.
Gobbledygook just does not work. I have worked for many years on fisheries. Too many NGO campaigners can easily spend hours on end talking about MSY. The discussions becoming quite excited and emotional.
Sadly, I have not yet met a senior politician (except one) who understood a word they were saying. In fact, the g look of horror at the very mention of the acronym was the usual a natural fight or flight response.
If your campaigner and lobbyist rejects the idea of using plain English, fire them.
I think it is useful to make sure what you a putting forward adds up and is scientifically sound. Indeed, I think it is good idea to have genuine scientific experts on hand to advise.
There are a few scientists I have met who can explain their issue in a clear and precise way, and even respond to questions in the same way. They are a rare breed. Most cannot. It is for that reason, I think scientific experts have a limited role in lobbying and campaigning. Vital for developing the objectives, but thereafter, best left alone.
- Religious zealots need not apply
Too many campaigners, for NGOs and industry, are in the business of religious conversion. But, they are in the wrong business. Lobbying is the business of persuasion.
I go for the agnostic vote. I realise that most normal politicians and regulators are unlikely to care too much about fish stocks in the North Sea. But, stealing a trick form Chris Rose and Value Communication, I know there is a way to make the key politicians and regulators to accept, if only for a very short period of time leading up to and just after the vote, that the position being put forward is the right one to back.
- Changing laws and policy is not complex
In the EU, there are about 50 key procedures for adopting policies and laws. On any given issue, there are about 250 key individuals, and at the end of the day, it is around 20.
If you know them (and too few people do) and can persuasively put your case forward at the right time, with the right information, that speaks to your audience, you are doing well.
Laws and policies follow, in the main an established procedure. I’d recommend following it. If you turn up too late in the day, your issue is likely going to be ignored, however important it is.
Personally, when at the stage of writing laws, I think it is a smart thing to use real lawyers. They will save you a lot of pain in the future.