Deborah Scott, Stacey Abrams and Felicia Davis are not household names. They aren’t currently elected representatives and don’t hold traditional leadership positions. And yet their work over a decade and more, alongside numerous other women of colour and community organisers across Georgia, USA, has exerted influence and shifted power from the streets of Atlanta to the White House.
Without them, Donald Trump could still be President of the USA, and the Republican Party might still control the US House and Senate. Decades of community organising significantly increased democratic and civic participation across Georgia and, against the grain, recently delivered two crucial Senate seats and 16 key Electoral College votes for the Democrats.
Whether it’s the outcomes of an election or the impacts of a global pandemic, when we’re only paying attention to daily news headlines change takes us by surprise. In reality, change is often the result of campaigns and efforts that have bubbled below the surface for a long time.
In Australia, the Federal Government’s JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments lifted thousands of people out of poverty overnight, doubling the Newstart rate and removing onerous conditions around receiving public support. But would these changes have occurred without the efforts of long-running campaigns such as #RaiseTheRate?
Similarly, the coalitions and alliances across Australia which during COVID-19 successfully advocated for support for temporary visa holders had been building connections and support for years, including through campaigns against racism and for the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum.
While these civil society activities have led to impactful outcomes, hundreds more campaigns start and finish without ever bearing fruit. A common question community groups, activists and for-purpose organisations ask themselves often is are we actually having an impact?
We appear in media stories, organise protests, build sizeable email lists, produce documents, meet with MPs, and more – but do these activities help or hinder our cause?
Are these actions helping us shift the dial?
How do we effectively build influence, exert power and advocate for change?
These are the kinds of questions that Strengthening Australian Civil Society is here to ask.
Through a series of workshops, dozens of interviews and workshops, as well as reviewing reports and collecting stories and resources from around the world, we’ve been trying to understand the role of advocacy and influence, community connection, systems and networks, and leadership in the way that civil society has responded to challenges like COVID-19.
Our research team is in the process of producing a series of discussion papers and conversation kits based on what people have told us so far, to help deepen Australian civil society’s collective processes of reflection and adaptation.
For now, we wanted to share four preliminary insights we’ve seen emerging regarding advocacy and influence:
- In crisis, we listen more closely to those we are already in relationships with: This is a natural reaction – in times of trouble, we lean on those we know and trust. However, this has implications for organisations that tend to rely on more oppositional or polarising styles of advocating or campaigning. Even organisations that are strongly critical of government need sight of a pathway to someone in decision-making room. That’s where the importance of networks comes in.
- There is a huge difference between advocating for someone and advocating with them: The legitimacy of a civil society organisation’s advocacy comes from the strength of their connection to, and relationship with, the community they exist to represent. Ensuring that those most closely affected by an issue are involved in setting a campaign’s strategy and activities, including acting as spokespeople, is infinitely more powerful than a campaign solely directed by professional staff and “knowledge experts”.
- People can confuse tactics with strategy: Activities such as building a strong social media presence or organising events to increase public profile take significant time and effort to get right, so the question needs to be asked: how will they lead to what we want? How are they part of a bigger strategy that builds our power? Campaigns with clear goals, targets and a plan that spells out how tactics are expected to contribute are more likely to avoid getting stuck in the tactical mud.
- The how of a campaign matters as much as the what: The need to hold and build relationships while getting things done in a fast-paced and ever-changing political environment is a challenge every campaign needs to wrestle with. When responding to a crisis, top-down hierarchical campaign responses might lead to individual policy wins, but this style of campaigning is unlikely to be successful in more proactive campaigns that aim to contribute to a more equitable or participatory society. Successful long-term alliances and campaigns pay attention to relationships between partners as well as between grassroots members and campaign coordinators or other professional campaign staff.
Our team will continue exploring and sharing stories and ideas related to advocacy, influencing and civil society over the coming months, so make sure you have signed up to receive updates when we release them.
At its heart, Strengthening Australian Civil Society is an ongoing conversation, a meeting place for people and organisations to share ideas, find common purpose and generate new relationships for change.
If reading this short piece has provoked thoughts and ideas on campaigning or another aspect of civil society, please get in touch and share where you’re at.
 More in-depth accounts of what happened in Georgia can be found in these articles in American Prospect and the New York Times.