How a NGO can win a campaign in Brussels

I have just re-watched a Channel 4 fly on the wall documentary, “Brussels behind closed doors”. It is a documentary about how an EU directive on air quality was adopted.

I know about this is obscure documentary because I worked for the Rapporteur, Anita Pollack MEP, on the adoption of this legislation. I learned a lot. For the next 20 years I have found myself working on legislation or campaigning to influence that legislation.

Re-watching got me thinking to  the best ways to influence EU policy.

Below, I have listed 26 points that I think a NGO would use if they really wanted to win.


  1. Have the proposal on the back of your pocket

The first thing you need is the draft law, along with the explanatory memorandum and supporting evidence, in your back pocket.

If you don’t have this, it is evidence that you really do not know what you want. If you can’t show an interested legislator at a moment’s notice what you want, in how the law or policy should look like, you are a not being serious. You are bystander to events and not an instigator.


  1. Be patient, wait for events

Good things take time to come about. I have shopped around policy solutions when the interest on the issue was too low. But, legislation has a habit of being tabled because of unforeseen events.

When your issue pops up in the political headlines and garners interest, this is your moment to move.  Seize the opportunity.


  1. Have the experts with you

Important public policy decisions are not made on the whim. There are a lot of checks and balances built in.

If you want to move things forward, you are going to have to have a group of select experts lined up to support you.

You are likely to have on staff, or experts on retainer, or at least some of the leading minds from academia and think tanks on speed dial. They will be ready to explain the supporting volumes of reports and studies that you have commissioned to support your case.

  1. Respond to the agenda

Issues on the political agenda come and go. They also return.  Your job is to respond to them and catch the wind when it blows in your direction.

You can work tirelessly on an issue for decades, but if you miss the opportunity of new found interest from a Commissioner, minister, or politician you will have to wait another decade in the political wilderness.

  1. Use celebrities

There is something about a photoshoot of a naked Greta Saatchi holding a cod that grabs interest.  I don’t understand why, but I know that all of sudden a lot of people become interested in the issue and very sympathetic to you.

There is a reason to use celebrities. They help your cause.


  1. Wear a tie and jacket

People have prejudices. It is helpful at times to confound them.

I am perplexed that even today a lot of people think that a NGOs campaigner wears a horse hair shirt to work. I always had that the uniform of the US west coast: chinos, shirt and sports jacket. For senior level meetings, a tie can be added.


  1. Know the rules of the game

If you don’t know how the fundamental processes for the adoption of legislation, I think it makes sense to seek another career.

I guesstimate that there are around 40 key processes for EU law. I would add another 10 for certain fields.

Strangely, most people are not aware of them. Even a lot of legislators and regulators are not aware of them. This is not for you. You will have a good grasp of the procedures you are dealing with.


  1. Know the 500, 250, 25 key players

You are going to have a rolodex of key people in Europe who decide and influence your issue. This is going to be made up of Ministers, their advisers, Commissioners,  Cabinet leads, civil servants, MEPs, MPs, experts, think tanks and key journalists.  It is around 500 to 250 people.

You are also going to have an institutive feeling for the who the key 25 people are. These are the 25 people who are at the end of the day will make the final decisions.


  1. Be flexible

You are going to have a plan, but you know your plan is going to go out of the window very quickly.

You are going to be flexible and harness opportunities. You are going to have a budget and resources that allows you to move with events, to run an advertisement in the Financial Times for a College decision, a go to a meeting that comes up that was never expected.


  1. Work with the media

You are going to be a source of information to the media. You’ll be able to provide the latest and unique insight on developments that is clear and and makes sense to them. They will see you as the go to person for comment 24/7. And, you will answer their calls and emails when they call you. You will make the mundane or technical seem interesting and important.

The press will provide you with the oxygen of publicity and a vital means of telling your story.

  1. Make it simple

You will make the complex clear and technical understandable.  You will be able to chat with Commissioners, politicians, officials, and technical experts in the same meeting at their respective levels.

You do not think that confusion helps, and instead you will speak to the audience at just the level they need.  You’ll shut down colleagues who start talking gobbledygook.

You are not the one of the many who thinks bamboozling your audience is smart. You know it is not and instead just alienates the very people you need to win over.

Instead, you will use smart charts, visuals, stories, facts and figures, that clearly and simply outline your position.  Making things simple is not to make it simplistic, but enlightening, so your audience say “wow, now I have got it”.


  1. Make it appeal to them

You will make your issue important to them.

You can do this in many ways. A well- placed news item on the TV that a politician’s family and friends watch can work wonders. I have not found a politician who wants to be personally responsible for their extinction of a species by their friends and family.

You won’t pitch the issue direct to them and instead, when the opportunity arises, have a friend of the key decision maker do it for you. Chatting about the extinction of a species over a weekend between friends is going to have a lot more clout than a briefing for a civil servant.

You will use celebrities and royals here as they are very helpful. They move in circles that you are unlikely to. They can often make direct appeals to people very high in the political food chain.


  1. Work in the cloud

You are a nomad, have a hot-desk in your office, airport and at home. You are accessible, call forwarding works. You are not a bureaucrat. We live in the 21st century where slack, skype, google office, all allow you, with the help of a smart phone and good internet connection, to work wherever you need to be.

  1. Inform your donors

Your work is going to be funded by the generosity of your members and sometime philanthropists.

It’s easy to forget in the day to day work that you work for them. They are paying the bills.

You need to let them know where their money is going. Always take their call and answer their email. Be straight forward and 100% transparent what you need the money for. If you need funding $100,000 for a court case, give them the details they want to make a decision. You are the ally to the donors and not your fundraising department.

If you start faking it the generosity will dry up very quickly. If you are honest, and admit the chances of success are low, or even non-existent, but it is important to do, I have found that the money will flow, often from unexpected places.


  1. Go Go-Pro

If there were an audience, you would go-pro your day.

Your donors may like to know where their money is going, and it must be a lot better than billable hours.

Sometimes, go-pro can record the unsubtle threat you will get. Death threats are still too common to environmental campaigners.

  1. Stunts work

Stunts  and demonstrations work, but please use volunteers rather than actors.

Greenpeace know stunts work. The world listens.


  1. Play for the long-term

Change does not happen over-night.  Even when you get the laws you want in place, it does not mean that the new laws will be implemented and complied with.

You will have a long-term perspective. You know that even if you get the law on the statute book, you will need to change gear, and get the law implemented, and bring about the change you wanted.

Now, the hard work really starts. You can outsource this work, or take it up yourself, but you are not going to walk away and trust the system to deliver. You know if you do this, the chances of what you wanted ever happening are slim, and the changes you worked so hard for, turn to dust.


  1. Ignore vast waves of land

You are not foolish. You know that vast swathes of the political landscape are never going to support you. Certain countries and political groups are, and likely always will, oppose you.

You are going to focus your limited resources on getting a coalition together of votes that will get you want you want. Nothing more. You are not in the business of gaining converts and instead you are going to focus on making sure your supporters turn up and vote and get enough wavering supporters switching to you.

You will ignore the advice of your colleagues who beg you to spend scarce time and money on getting the support of a country or political group who are publically and privately against you. Going into the lion’s den to win allies is a fool’s dream. You may come out, but you are likely to be scared, often fatally.

There is an exception to this. When you are winning, you can go into the territory you had conceded. It worked for Stalin.

  1. Outsource

You will be smart, and when it is best to win, you will outsource.

Why would you use your own local organization when there is a stronger NGO in that country who is also working on the same issue, supporting you. Use them instead.


  1. One night stands work

Campaigns throw up the most unlikely mutual interests. Harness them.

Working with supportive industry allies is used a lot today. As long as does not dilute your message, use it.

The mutual interest may end the day after you both politically get what you want, but as long as it gets you want you want, it is worth trying it.


  1. Supply the back up

You are going to find political allies who want to help you. Sometimes, they are going to say that they want to help, but they do not have the time and staff to do all the work. Make it easy for them and give to them.

  1. Don’t sound bonkers

Re-watching the documentary, I am reminded that some NGOs can sound bonkers.

Faced between the prospect of overnight de-industrialization or a transition,  most politicians (and people) are going to back the transition.  Pitching that the only way to get to a given target is by embracing the economic planning of Pol Pot is bonkers.

You’ll be smart. You will show how the objective is possible, by using available technologies and is more profitable than today’s model.


  1. Have a few bibles

I have a few core well-thumbed books that I constantly come back to.  Mine are:

  • European Parliament, “Rules of Procedure”
  • European Commission, “Better Regulation Guidelines”
  • Gueguen & Marissen, “Handbook on EU secondary legislation”
  • Chris Rose, “What Makes People Tick” & “How to Win Campaigns”
  • Mailyn Political, “How To Run the European Parliament”


  1. Have the lawyers on standby

Law making brings ups important legal questions. It is helpful to have a good lawyer on call. You will use them to prepare the draft directive, provide quick legal briefing asked for by an ally, rebut a legal position raised by the other side, and sometimes respond to litigation threats.


  1. Take the call

The greatest opportunities come from picking up the phone.  You will get a huge amount by answering calls and making them.

Too many of your colleagues don’t like phones. They dislike the ideas of cold calling to find out what is happening on their issue. They dislike even more the very idea of answering an enquiry from a journalist.

I have got some of my biggest political breaks from the phone.

If people don’t like the phone, it is better they try a new career

  1. Avoid the internal meetings

There is a disease that afflicts too many NGOs. It is internal meetings.

You will avoid this navel gazing. You will focus on changing the outside world and delivering change.

You are not a management consultant preparing yet another new set of power-point. You are a political campaigner.


  1. Speed works

You will have the draft bill, studies, amendments, supporting evidence ahead of time.  You are going to ignore the prevarication and internal dialogue of your hierarchy.

A key lesson I took away from Brussels behind closed doors was that speed works. The major weak point of our opponents is they were slow and we were fast. We did our homework, a lot of it, and tabled everything ahead of time. We played by the rules and used our in-built voting strength to put through our package.

We had a big advantage. Our opponents did not know how to respond because they were working too slowly.

You will learn from this. You will be ahead of the curve. You will have your full package out on the day of the Commission’s proposal. You will obviously already have it. You will set the agenda



I have borrowed ideas liberally from others in my work in particular:

John. Kingdon, “Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies”

Andrew Rich, “Think Tanks, Public Policies and the Politics of Expertise”

Robert. B. Cialdini,  “Influence” & “Pre-suasion”



I have written the counter-point on what to do if you are targeted by a NGO campaign. I may publish it one day.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

One thought on “How a NGO can win a campaign in Brussels

Comments are closed.