10 things to look for in a NGO if you want policy and legal change

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.


  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Campaign

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.

  1. 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.


  1. 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:

  1. Have a draft Bill in the filing cabinet
  2. 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.


  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.










The wit and wisdom of Elizabeth Sloane

I  have just read the script of the uber-lobbyist movie ‘Miss Sloane’.

The movie is about Miss Elizabeth Sloane. She is a “Traditionally a free-market and anti-tax advocate, Elizabeth Sloane has more recently led a full-frontal assault on the Second Amendment, going up against the Gun Lobby in support of the Heaton-Harris Amendment on gun control; a veritable David vs. Goliath battle for the veteran strategist. Congress is set to allege that Ms. Sloane has made a career out of subverting American democracy.”

She works for “Cole, Kravitz and Waterman LLP


The script is full of gems. I cut and paste some of them below.


Not to emulate
There are things that I’d not recommend. She exists on a diet of  Benzodiazepines.

She has given all her energy to work and deals with physical needs via an escort service.

Her insights on lobbying and winning votes in Congress are insightful. They do, at times, seem questionable. But, in DC, I suspect these practices are mainstream.


  1. On lobbying

    Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising countermeasures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition, and plays her trump card just after they play theirs.
  2. Reframe

Palm oil is a key ingredient in Nutella. If the Federal Government taxes it at 300%, it’ll cost more for us to gorge ourselves on it.


Isn’t palm oil in pretty much everything?


We could have called it Soap Tax, but the public cares more about Nutella than it does soap. Ross did surveys.

  1. Movie extras

If no supporters, hire movie extras movie extras. She hired an actors to play doctors to ask questions to a Congressman  in public meetings / fundraisers.


  1. Know your subject

Know your subject, people! Failure to do so may result in the loss of a golden opportunity.

When I see you this afternoon, you’d better be ready to recite that tax code in Esperanto.


  1. Never cheat

A conviction-lobbyist never cheats; she exposes cheaters.


  1. Make complex issues simple

Less than 0.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Would you like to know by how many orders of magnitude the American industrial revolution eclipsed them, so we could grow fat off all that Nutella.

  1. Know your facts

Esme’s our authority on gun control. When it comes to facts and figures, she has no equal.

  1. Know your team

  2. Know your issue

  3.  Put a human face

Mothers against guns marches, there was an online pledge to vote against anyone who opposes gun control-

  1. Count the votes for and against you

An entire wall is dedicated to bio mugshots of Congressmen, with red slashes over some and green ticks over others. Some have no markings. This is their vote count.


  1. Know the rules of procedure

217’s the magic number. 217 gets us a majority-


  1. Sound bite your issue

Yes. Pussyfooting isn’t memorable. Sound bites are, and the appropriate one here goes like this: anyone that desperate to get their hands on a gun shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near one.


  1. Record their position on film
  2. Do Prep

Has profiles done on each politician.

  1. Use your own close network
  2. Communicate

We need to market Heaton-Harris the same way they market Big Macs. We’re dropping direct mail pamphlets and buying ad space online instead. Alex, you’re in charge of the banners, you have a two o’clock with JWT on 14th Street. Now, to the phone banks.


  1. Study

Now, the second reason we’re here is that I’d like you all to read Packard’s exposé of psychological techniques of commercial advertisers from 1957.

  1. Communicate so it leads to action

Our phone pitch has to “burrow insidiously into Floridian brains?”


Yes. And so too your ad banners. They must burrow so deep, your targets are inspired to flood their elected official with pro-Heaton-Harris letters, and use those delightful social networks to implore their friends to do likewise. Now, read the exposé, and take to the media-verse!

  1. Use a whiteboard

– 11 VOTES LOCKED, 23 TO GO is scrawled on a whiteboard, underneath – DAYS TO VOTE: 148.


  1. Speak to each politician and count off the vote

Use others to speak with them.


  1. Not an easy job

I’ve gone through eleven doctors, they all want rid of me for ignoring their exhortations to slow down. I want to slow down. But this job is the only means I have of making myself useful.

22.  Idealology is dead – this is about self interest

 Did you know, ideology is dead? The philosophies of the left and right are driven by the self-interest of those who advance them.

Neither side cares for the merits of their argument; they just happen to spout it because it suits their position in the world.


  1. Simplify the message

Gunshot victims cost the American taxpayer $12 billion a year. That’s $32 per gun in circulation. Now get your house in order.


  1. Create a diversion

The whole Florida thing was a ruse?


  1. Expose politicians who are going to vote against you – Giant Rat

  2.  Make your case clear on TV & provoke the other side

This is the latest incursion into individual liberty by an all-powerful federal government-


What, like drivers’ licenses?


Drivers’ licenses? I’m not really seeing the connection.


It’s illegal to operate a car without going through rigorous theoretical and practical assessments, that’s a clear constraint on the freedom of individuals to drive cars, as with pilots to fly planes.!


Why, they’re a government incursion on individual liberty, are they not? We accept them because they make sense; the more dangerous the machinery, the more rigorous the tests should be. We wouldn’t want unfit drivers in cars any more than novice pilots flying 747s, because dangerous machinery in the wrong hands poses a threat to public safety. I think we can extend our definition of ‘dangerous machinery’ to semi-automatic firearms


And I can’t stand to see people hide behind it just as they hide behind the Bible to deny gay people rights. Literalists need to stop reciting their sacred parchments and exercise their brain power. If they can produce a rational winning argument, I’ll gladly migrate to their side, but ‘because it says so in the Constitution, the Bible, or my horoscope’ is not a winning argument.


It’s a ripcord; the intellectual equivalent of a yellow, pant-pissing wimp cowering behind mommy’s skirt.


  1. Go all out to win

I see you’re still in kill mode.


  1. You need scandal and controversy

Any of our friends in the media will tell you that’s only accomplished with scandal and controversy. Our message isn’t penetrating to younger voters, most of whom are pro, but few of whom are politically active. In short, we need to make gun control cool.


  1. Use celebritites

– Justin Timberlake’s Twitter page. #BeTheChange is all we need to see. Other celebrities follow suit.


  1. Morality

There are degrees of wrongness. Immoral as a harmless lie may be, it may be perfectly moral to tell a hundred of them to prevent a truly pernicious outcome. Lies and half truths are a lobbyist’s stock in trade. But I’ve never deployed one for a cause I didn’t believe in.!

  1. Make an earthquake

You didn’t hire me to get close. (To Ross)

What would it take to revive it?


Right now, it’s not even making it to the floor.


What would it take to revive it?


Seriously? An earthquake. Elizabeth nods, as if finally conceding defeat.


Well. I should get going.


  1. Promoting self-interest

My work as a lobbyist has been defined by a peculiar kind of conflict. I’ve made a career from defending my clients’ attempts to maximize their profit. I loathe to use words such as ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’, because I don’t believe such concepts to be bases for human behavior. I’ve advocated strongly for self-interest as the only rational basis.


I recently told my attorney that ideology is dead; that people merely co-opt whichever political school of thought best serves their desire to profit personally. Looking back on my history of representations, I can only marvel at how wrong I was.


  1. Principle kicks in

I guess, sometimes, people challenge themselves – do things they don’t fully understand, that don’t make sense to them, or even things they’re not comfortable with… Not from any self-serving impulse to protect their lot, but as a matter of principle. Because they happen to believe, in the circumstances, it’s plainly and simply the right thing to do.

The truth is, I took on each and every one of my representations because I believed, as a matter of ideology, in the causes I for which advocated.

Some may regard this as ‘infantile, save-the-world idealism’, but I’ve come to realize that conviction lobbying served my interests very well; it catapulted me over the legions of mercenaries, to the very top of my industry; all without playing golf, or being a man.

My point is this, and there’s no better place to make it than on national TV, before America’s assembled press…



Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising countermeasures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition, and plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them, and they don’t surprise you.

I anticipated that if I got sufficiently close with Heaton- Harris, there may be an assault against me personally to stall our momentum and tarnish our credibility.


  1. Have a Plan – and note the costs

Then it worked. I wouldn’t have moved without a plan to win. But for what? This was career suicide. No firm’s going near you, not now. You’re too high-profile.

I knew this would be my last hurrah the moment I conceived it.


  1. In her self interest


You’re the champion of self-interest,right? I fail to see how self immolation in furtherance of a gun bill is in your interests. This was disinterested altruism.

Career suicide might sound bad… but it’s not when you consider the alternative is suicide by career. Any of my eleven doctors would tell you I’ve served my interests very well.


  1. Do research

Everything is researched and checked.

Better Regulation & Ordinary Legislation in one easy chart

I wanted to put down in one easy chart how the Commission adopts ordinary legislation. This is the chart I came up with.

The advantage of the Better Regulation rules is that the process for adopting a legislative proposal is quite straightforward.

First, you have to go through the Better Regulation guidelines and toolbox.  If you don’t want to go through that, I have added a process chart.

Second, you need know who is involved in the Inter-service Steering Group and the Inter-Service Consultation at the Services and Cabinet level. You are going to need to know max around 50 people. That’s a lot less than 200 +  people you need to know when it goes to the ordinary legislation stage

Third, around a year after the political validation for the work to start, and the first road map/inception impact assessment, you are likely to see a legislative proposal being adopted.

Fourth, to be honest, the smoke signals that regulation in your area is likely to be seen many months and years before political validation. The only excuse for not seeing the signs is long term hospitalisation or political hibernation. After 25 years I  have not yet encountered a piece of legislative action that “came out of the blue”. As soon as the smoke signals are seen, and hopefully before, your work developing your case and story will start.

Finally, that gives you a few months to get your facts and story in a line to persuade 50 people that your solutions are the best and get them to back your side of the story.

The Progressive lobbying manual for today

Lobbying for Change: Find your voice to create a better society:  Alberto Alemanno

Professor Alemanno is an academic, lobbyist and lawyer. He has also written one of the best books on lobbying I have come across.

Every lobbyist who is serious about their craft should read it.

I picked it up today in the airport and finished it this evening.

For many years I worked for as a lobbyist for Progressive causes. This is the play book I wished had been written. I now work, most of the time, on the other side.

I consider that after the philanthropic community read this book they will require NGOs to follow the steps, activities and tips (see below).

This is an excellent manual or checklist of best practice on lobbying for progressives. After your read this book, read Chris Rose’s book on how to win campaigns.

This book is well written and absent from jargon.

What is clear that if you are serious about lobbying nothing can be left to chance. Perhaps because Professor Alemanno is a lawyer, the constant theme of written plans (updated) comes across.

This is a guidebook for any serious group of progressives. It is clear that technology has changed the rules of the game. It has made it easier for concerned citizens to activate a campaign. he means have been given, at low or no cost, for that campaign to be more effective and hit the right target audiences.


Part III “The Toolbox” should be re-titled “The Goldmine”.


10 Steps


Step 1: Pick your battle

Step 2: Do your homework

Step 3: Map your lobbying environment. Namely: 1. the lobbying target; b. your potential allies; 3. your opponents.

Step 4: Draw up a lobbying plan

Step 5: Pick your allies

Step 6: Raise money

Step 7: Plan your communication

Step 8: Face to face meetings

Step 9: Monitor progress and delivery

Step 10: Stick to the lobbying rules


He then goes on to explain how to do this in practice. What is being recommended is not easy. It is a lot of work.  But, he provides case studies where he or others have run and won citizen based lobbying campaigns.

Someone has taken the time to breakdown a model that works and shared it with the world for the cost of the book.

10 Actions

He lists clear activities for each step and then goes on to give useful tips.

Activity 1: Chart the issue and its solutions.  This looks look: 1. Problem definition: what the issue is, 2. Public consultation: what people think about the issue, 4. Design of the policy options: how to solve the issue, 4. Adoption: making a decision to adopt the solution, 5. Policy implementation: the implementation of the solution, 6. Policy adjudication somebody may challenge the solution(s) before the Courts, 7. Policy evaluation: how well the solution worked.

Activity 2: Map your issue

Activity 3: Prepare a background document

Activity 4: Look for pro-bono support

Activity 5: Identify lobbying target(s)

Activity 6: Draw a power map

Activity 7: Look for pro-bono help

Activity 8: Draw up a communication plan

Activity 9: Write your story

Activity 10: Blogging


22 Tips

  1. Pitch your issue
  2. Work as a network and be agile: He recommends Skype, Slack and Google Hangout
  3. Use pro-bono
  4. Gibe your issue a human face
  5. Be data driven, even without data
  6. Precedents matters
  7. Appearance matters – make the fact sheet slick
  8. Stakeholder profiling – do it
  9. Make a positional map with movable text boxes
  10. Submit your observations – take part in public consultations
  11. Draft your amendment
  12. File an amicus curiae brief
  13. When to launch an on line petition
  14. Coalition members’ inventory
  15. Don’t be afraid to ask for money
  16. Branding for the coalition
  17. How readable is your press release
  18. Mock interview
  19. DIY Digital Campaign
  20. Set up your blog
  21. Practice your empathy
  22. Prep your elevator pitch


I now have an easy test to know if a lobbyist is serious about their craft. I just look to see if this book is on their book shelf.

My review to does not do justice. There are too many gems in this book. Just go and buy and read it.