What makes an effective campaign

Most activists are amateur campaigners. It’s the second time we discover our ignorance. Check out here how to make great campaigns.

In a new field with a new scourge, sufferers are often complete novices. We’re taken by surprise when we get pushed or fall into the scary river.

Once we survive and recover – if we survive and recover – we may become activists, determined to change the world. We think that what’s been so obvious to us who’ve suffered, need only be flagged up to the world and the world will quickly change its ways.

Sounds reasonable. It may work for some things. But it most certainly doesn’t work for complex ones like the field of post-separation family troubles. In fact, this describes it well: Every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it gets. Re-designing a system that is ‘designed’ to produce problems is not easy. Of course, if any designing at all was done, it was likely done in naive ignorance of social developments to come, and of the unintended consequences of what seemed like a good idea at the time.

Typically, the situation downstream at the frontline is urgent, ‘the river’ being perfectly designed to produce the problems you’re facing. There’s little space for creative thinking or teaming up in an emergency like that. Options come in polarising black and white. Something needs to be done right now to ‘save folk from drowning’. So we invoke reasons for urgent action like the rights of the child, or demand that parents be more responsible, or that someone intervenes pronto. It’s a scary scene.

So, even if activists from this frontline persuade a roomful of key people, or just their social media followers, that change is needed in the system, most folk head off for their tea. Then, on Monday, they go back to their usual jobs where everyone works hard at the status quo. That’s what they get paid for. The last thing the boss wants is change. Anyone who pushes too hard against the old ways risks getting fired.

Amateurs again

For a second time, then, we are shocked to find we’re amateurs – that the world doesn’t want to know. It’s not a surprise that a novice activist is ignorant. If you’ve not done it before, how would you know? This time we’re novices at effective campaigning. We try to raise our game. On our own maybe, we set up some way to get the world to hear us. Shouting louder, we think … yes, that will work?

With the internet and social media, anyone and everyone can set up a website, publish a book, start a Facebook group, an organisation, make Youtube videos, and even hold events. We may focus on a particular idea that we think will improve things. Well, we think it would have helped our own case, so maybe that’s the silver bullet for everyone. Perhaps we get clever and team up with some fellow sufferers and build up a more composed project. Maybe we add some science and evidence to give added authority.

Often supporters and helpers, professionals too, improve the way they help while earning a living. Naturally, professionals will do what they’re trained to do. They develop and teach their new ways as being effective good practice for everyone to adopt. They develop a science and do research on the new pattern. Both kinds of amateur campaigners attract followers, sympathy and support. Without thinking through how widely our efforts can spread, nor how many years it will take, a bit of support encourages us to think we’re on the right track.

Professionals are amateurs

Professionals have to accept they’re amateurs when it comes to campaigning. Rarely, like finding a vaccine for COVID, new methods and research happen very quickly. Usually, professionals forget that dissemination in journals and conferences doesn’t work quickly or automatically, that decades of dedicated work go into rolling out something as obvious even as the connection between smoking and disease. Realistically, to change the whole system, professionals are using only an amateur’s limited influence. And shouting louder seldom works.

Yet we go on, and on, sometimes for years and decades, doing more of the same. These two sailors are stuck doing ‘more of the same’. Unlike most problems, this one is 100% caused by a combination of solutions. Neither can see nor change their chosen strategy. At the least, they’d lose face. In his book Upstream: How to solve problems before they happen, Dan Heath calls ‘more of the same’: ‘tunnelling’.

This whole pattern of energetic but ineffective activity is well-recognised in any new complex field where campaigning is required but somehow so hard to get going. See the Theory of Collaborative Disadvantage and Inertia. Here’s a summary of it.

A campaigner’s to-do list

Eventually I accepted that, despite a long professional training and life, I was an amateur at campaigning. I’d prefer you not to have to learn the hard way like I have. I’ve learned from professional campaigners eg here, here, here and here to produce this checklist with ten elements for effective campaigns for change. Do note how basic and boring some of these essential items are. We want changing the world to be simple, more dramatic. But it’s hard work.

Check the checklist so your campaign is ready to hit the road. Campaigners in the same field often fall badly out with each other. The checklist here helps compare and contrast what’s needed and missing in various campaigns. So campaigners will be able to team up and pull together in a more effective overall way. The ten points are:

  • Clamour
  • The right audience
  • Policy
  • Strategy for ultimate success
  • Vision and aims
  • Brand
  • Sustainable structures
  • Harmony
  • Evidence-based projects, messaging and rhetoric
  • Media media media


1. Clamour

As Benjamin Franklin probably didn’t say: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” So a fervent clamour from and about the suffering is the necessary start and fuel of campaigning. A clamour on its own may work with obvious things – like a pandemic. You yell and it’s obvious what someone needs to do. But real change for complex things needs more than just loud protests. A difficult choice of focus is between attending to those shouting now, suffering and in desperate need of the best help available right away – versus – working on more lasting changes to the system, changes that can benefit only future sufferers. Engaging people for future change often requires crafting a very different formula than just the loud clamour of sufferers.

Questions to ask: Why are we shouting? Is it sharing our own pain to get comfort and help from fellow sufferers? Are we wanting to get or give urgent help for them now? Are we aiming to change the way the system creates the problem so it helps sufferers better? Are you trying to do both helping and system-change, when those two aims need very different approaches?

2. The right audience:

The loud clamour initially draws fellow sufferers and activists together into an in-house arena for support. More voices helps to add volume and shape to the clamour. New sufferers will find support and guidance from older sufferers. But – for complex entrenched problems like this – clamouring in an in-house audience does little to progress any campaigning to change the wider system. An effective campaign has to shape itself for the right audience. That’s not the in-house group; it’s the world outside. The audience you’re looking to talk to and influence is wider society, the public, communicators and those with power to change things.

Questions to ask: Who is the audience you need to speak to? Are you mainly catering to support or recruit those who’re suffering? What progress can an in-house audience of fellow-sufferers make? How do we reach the wider audience we need to persuade and influence? What words and messages do we need for outward-facing campaigning so we engage outsiders and change systems?

3. Policy:

Imagine that your shouting does get wider attention, maybe even those with power to change things. Remember they’re in a position and jobs devoted to running the status quo. They’re never going to be keen or able to make even minor changes. Is massed sufferers shouting at them loudly a good strategy? No it’s not. You need positive ways to engage those in power. And you need something solid to put on their desk. Who is best at drafting policy? Sufferers are often too close to the trees to see the wider woods, the things that are needed for change. Solutions may be in a very different category to the problems. You don’t always need to know about the problem in detail: for cholera, you just need to know that the solution is clean water and sanitation. In modern government, positive policy is required to avoid the default to no policy or a negative policy. Default policy is what happened 70 years ago when across the world the unforeseen complexity of separating families fell into the hands of family law systems, the worst designed system for that problem, one that has now become hugely entrenched as a status quo industry. So, an effective campaign needs to have worked out some clear new persuasive workable policy ready for those in power to use. Policy-making is boring but essential highly skilled campaign work.

Questions to ask: If your shouting were to work, have you got something constructive to hand over to those in power? For amateur activists, how on earth can we create convincing competent new policy? Who has the expertise, good will and spare energy to help us draft some? Are there some boring but competent colleagues we’ve not made use of? Doesn’t it make sense to look for and support those organisations that have got some policy prepared?

4. Strategy for ultimate success:

But any new policy needs to be part of an overall strategy for ultimate success. That’s easy, the amateur campaigner thinks: It’s simply stopping what we suffered. Campaigning against something simple may work, but for complex things and systems, a more positive vision is needed. The positive vision is needed to engage and compel changes that incidentally solve the bad things. It’s best if your positive strategy builds in ways for you and the authorities to track its progress and success to the end – its ultimate success. As we go through the ten points here, we can begin to see how effective campaigns require considerable expertise that amateur sufferers are unlikely to have, nor the funds to pay professionals either.

Questions to ask: Is there any suffering activist who is able to plan strategy for the wider project? (Remember sufferers need to separate off their own personal situation and feelings, have their own case under control, so they’re free to concentrate objectively on such challenging work.) Are activists who step forward expert in just one of these effective campaign skills? Or in all ten of them? Is their particular expertise just a fancier way to gather a bigger in-house group, to talk more loudly but still without a clear strategy that aims to engage the wider world for long term change and ultimate success?

5. Vision and aims:

For effective campaigns for complex things, getting the right audience, policy and strategy for ultimate success crystallises into having a great vision that can be turned into great action plans and aims. The aims are best crafted as positive outcomes the campaign seeks to achieve, rather than the means that can be used to do it. For example, ‘education’ may well be one way to teach kids how to be resilient, but lots of poor education won’t do it. The focus on the outcome is what matters most: ‘resilient kids’.

Questions to ask: How big a vision do we need to overtake the big problem we face? Is there an activist in-our-house of sufferers who happens to understand the big picture and is also an expert in campaigning, who might do that job for love? If not who can we model ourselves on or turn to or pay to help us develop to the point of great vision and aims?

6. Brand:

Our great vision will drive a great name and branding for the campaign. There are professionals whose whole job is developing a good brand, a name and banner design for your campaign. Think of how successful businesses use their brand. Social impact campaigners are not selling goods, but we are in the business of selling ‘good’. Many of the requirements are the same in both businesses. Your brand and name will engage best if it has a positive or intriguing meaning. If it’s already used on the internet, you’ll need to think again. Upfront negative messages put people off. Often amateur campaigns prominently use the name of what they’re trying to get rid of. The result can be that their headlines advertise the problem – the enemy – not the solution. Proud activists may end up inadvertently promoting the exact opposite of what they’re aiming to do: eg ‘Domestic Violence Champions’ instead of ‘Safeguarding Champions’. Effective brand names promote a positive message. For example The Spastics Society renamed itself Scope.

Questions to ask: What does your proposed brand name, strapline and logo say about you to the wider world? Is it inspiring or off-putting? Is it a trigger and target for your detractors? Are the words self-explanatory to the wider world or do you first have to explain what they mean? If you’ve got this far on your own, have you tried it out to see what other people think of your plans? Have you tried it out on people who are new or even not so keen on your cause – because they’re the ones you’re needing to engage and influence?

7. Sustainable structures:

This is very obvious: Long-standing if not entrenched complex social systems will not change quickly or easily. They may take decades that you personally don’t have. The keen amateur activist really really wants a simple quick fix. That’s understandable but unrealistic. It’s a hard reality that serious change-makers need an organisational structure with long-term sustainability that can keep going for decades. That means setting up a company with a business plan, a SWOT analysis and quite a lot of funding to go with the love. SWOT means looking hard at the Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats for your project. In the charitable and social impact campaigning sector, rather than competing, it may be better to join up with others. With few competent activists to go round, it’s silly to reinvent wheels or duplicate precious time, energy and resources unnecessarily.

Questions to ask: What would happen to your wonderful one-man campaign if you were run over by a bus tomorrow – would it just disappear with you? Have you teamed up with others who know why and how to carry forward the work? Are you ready for the company structure you’ll need? Have you done a SWOT analysis? Who else is doing the same sort of thing as you plan to do? Have you talked to them or snubbed them?

8. Harmony: 

Many campaign fields are full of separate campaigners who all want the same thing but are busy duplicating everything on their own. Much better would be an integrating force that coordinates and harmonises diverse efforts so they all head in the same direction. A harmonised master campaign doesn’t have to be run by one organisation, but everyone doing their own thing is likely to diffuse and undermine the overall cause. There is a lot of important work in teaming up so you can all be singing the same song, harmonising not hindering each other in what are, after all, shared overall objectives.

Questions to ask: Have you picked up the phone and spent time talking things through with other campaigners? How about using this checklist as a way to compare what you’re doing so that it’s more joined-up? Isn’t it worth taking the trouble to team up and reduce the exhaustion of duplicating everyone’s separate efforts?

9. Evidence-based projects, messaging and rhetoric:

Some people say it’s fine for everyone to be doing their own thing, that many roads lead to Rome, that the best ways will become clear eventually. But that kind of natural experiment is not reasonable or efficient, given the urgency in a campaigning field, and the few activists there are to put together a solid effective campaign, one that ticks these ten boxes, for example. A joined up approach requires determined, disciplined, evidence-based, logical, underpinning for the projects, messages and rhetoric. Evidence and reason may show that our favourite projects aren’t the best ones, that we should go with the effective ones. At the individual level, getting the foundations in place means that activists can know that they’re doing a good job in the greater scheme of things, get more satisfactory results for our efforts, that our campaigns all give us more metaphorical bangs for our metaphorical bucks.

Questions to ask: As an amateur, have you really thought ‘professionally’ hard about how serious change can be made to happen? Have you been open to reason and evidence, maybe use this checklist to help you? Can you set aside your passion, your pride, your latest big event or publication, so you can think realistically about what will actually work? Have you looked at existing campaigns to see how they do it and maybe to join up with them instead of going it alone in an amateur way?

10. Media media media:

As the other nine points above make clear, a good campaign goes far deeper than just its media and certainly deeper than its social media. But a modern campaign requires creative and technical skills for high quality media, with engaging material that carries the best crafted messages to the right audiences. Social media has an important supporting role. But the major influential work happens in mainstream media, opinion articles, professional delivery of creative advertising. The aims of good media are to create the broader awareness and culture that carries the new policy-makers forward. Here’s a couple of great examples of creative short videos in media campaigns 1. to end malaria, David Beckham speaking in the future and in nine languages – and 2. for clean water.

Questions to ask: Again, do you know any creative film-makers, writers, journalists, those with personal experience of the suffering and / or the influence and skill to do this important media work for love? Where will you find them if not for love? How will creative folk who’ve not been through the suffering understand what’s needed? How will you select and pay them for their work and for the paid for media and advertising you’ll need?

In summary

Setting out here what makes an effective campaign follows naturally from two previous blogs. ‘Prevention‘ shows the challenge of doing something as obviously desirable as solving problems before they happen. In particular, it shows how hard it is for those who suffer and work at the immediate downstream frontline – the natural source of activism – to prioritise heading upstream to find prevention that can only help future cases. We can see how one downstream system – family law – is really not ready to welcome what any upstream prevention might bring them. And ‘Blood-letting‘ is an applied history lesson on how entrenched established systems actively resist change for decades and centuries. The question it asks is: when everyone thinks the present systems are fine, how does a campaign change people’s minds?

Campaigns for change step into this gap – the gap between unrealistic amateur activists suffering at the frontline fervently shouting for change right away, and established systems implacably intent on their problem-producing status quo. Serious activists cannot afford to be amateur in their campaigning. Yet mostly that’s what we are.

Use this checklist for your campaigning. Use it in a field like post-separation troubles for families. After decades of campaigns that have little progress to show for it, we really do need some more reliably effective campaigning. The checklist shows that too many campaigns just now are content with a range of ways to clamour, to recruit more voices by supporting sufferers, to speak to in-house audiences rather than the wider world. In fact, we’re mostly stuck on point number 1: Clamour. It really is time to do better than just shouting loudly.

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.


  1. Venetia Young

    Hi Nick This is fabulous! Well done. I will send it to several key people. V x

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Good stuff, Nick! I also liked your “Are we not there yet?” paper, and not least: your lecture at the Stockholm conference 2018.


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