Campaigning and advocacy: the impact of Covid 19 and the impact to come, Part II

By Jean-Martial Bonis Charancle and Jeremy Smith

Advocacy Hub members spoke with 12 advocacy directors or their equivalent from international development and human rights NGOs and trade unions to gauge what the impact of Covid 19 on advocacy and campaigning has been and what the longer-term impact on advocacy and campaigning might be. Our analysis is summarised here.

The prevailing impression is one of uncertainty. The actual and potential effects of Covid 19 are not susceptible to a simple analysis and there is no simple path forward. What the Hub offers in a series of three blog pieces is (1) a description of the current state of the sector as affected by Covid 19; (2) an analysis of what the various uncertainties arising from Covid 19 may mean for the future of advocacy and campaigning; (3) a resumé of a debate held in October 2020 with many of those interviewed.

Part I of this series can be found here.

Four meta-uncertainties for the future of advocacy and campaigning

Collaboration or competition?

The pandemic is simultaneously a cause of opportunities and threats. While  “there is plenty to fight for” given the aggravating consequences of the pandemic on a wide spectrum of causes including inequality and poverty, the pandemic is at the same time creating a massive screen that makes it difficult to be visible. On the one hand then, increased collaboration could help advocacy organisations reorganised to be heard and to mutualize means in difficult time. On the other hand, strong forces may push advocacy organisations into heated competition to access reduced funds and renew their supporter bases.

Radicalisation of advocacy?

The pandemic may lead activists and advocates to lose their temper. The necessity to be heard while direct access to power is limited by the pandemic is one. Civil space restrictions and the rise in populism and nationalism could contribute to the sense of urgency that is already attached to the global causes like climate. Activists frustrated at the limited potential of online activities could morph into organisations engaging in more radical tactics. At the same time, decision-makers, looking for visibility and presence, are making themselves easily available online. And we are far from having exhausted the innovation possibilities regarding digital influence.

What will organisations look like?

Like many, the advocacy sector has rapidly moved to online work. Networked organisations have reported the positive impact of more horizontality during lockdowns. The pandemic has also given a new spark to the agility debate. This “online-agile-horizontal” model, however, has yet to prove its effectiveness. Questions are already surfacing regarding the long-term effect of online working on teamwork – for example, on creativity and on well-being. The prophecy “we are all zoom people” is starting to sound a little too real, ….and scary. How much  advocacy can be online and how much requires physical contact will have to be examined with more scrutiny.

Increased relevance challenge?

The model of connected local-global advocacy piloted by INGOs is challenged by the pandemic. With INGOs grounded, it seems more than ever that it is time to accelerate localisation and give more space to local actors in conducting advocacy and rethink the key arena for advocacy. At the same time, the model of advocacy based on a strong branded image is also under pressure as it no longer meets the expectations of movements and individuals. The coming period could see a greater valorisation of movements and of the distributed network model. Advocacy in the time of the pandemic may also require entering into new, tangential, alliances – the sort of joint working which often proves challenging for INGOs.

Not everything is new in the new normal

However destabilising COVID 19 is, it is not the only change force in play. Before the pandemic, it was already largely recognised that advocacy was operating in a context marked by uncertainty, asymmetry and complexity. This was already translating into, among other trends, the distrust of institutions and the emergence of movements, and the idea that organisation should be flexible and creative rather than to stick strictly to their mission. So, what is new? The digitalisation of advocacy is certainly a trend that has accelerated. The second change is the reshuffling of advocacy strategies. Those that can phase their campaigning with the pandemic in a sophisticated way will have an advantage. The emerging sense of urgency that comes with the ‘piling up’ of multiple global crises will also transform advocacy strategies.

Four types of post-covid 19 advocacy organisations

Still in the room  

In this group, we find organisations that have maintained access to decision-makers. They are leaders in their sector with historic access and established partnerships with decision-makers. We also find in this group foundations making the move to direct advocacy and big international networks that have a strong identity/image to defend. These organisations have large advocacy departments. They will grow during the pandemic by mergers and acquisitions. They are mission driven, with a strong brand and lead very large coalitions on systemic change.

Flexible rebranding

This group comprises of organisations that no longer want to be seen as established institutions but would rather be considered as “leaderful movements”. Their fundraising will be based on «independent» characters as much as, and maybe even more than on their own identity. These organisations will be characterised by their capacity to use multiple identities and to frequently rebrand. They will go back and forth between acting as a movement and as an organisation and will operate to a distributed network model. They will be agile and flexible, moving people around to be in the right physical places and to exploit a new balance between local-national-regional-global advocacy based on complementarity and horizontality. There will be existing organisations in this category and also new players.

Radicalisation

This category will regroup historically radical organisations and organisations that are losing access to decision-makers due to COVID 19. They will attract activists that are dissatisfied with the limits of online activism and activists that believe in civil disobedience under a ‘no time to lose’ logic. Organisations in this group will be focused on emergencies, not on solutions. They will defy lockdown measures and organise physical protests, during which, the irony is that participants will have to wear masks. Organisations in this group will be loosely associated with each other and will work in tangential alliances with organisations in the other groups.

All-virtual

Organisations in this category are deciding to go all-virtual on the basis that being locked in is the future of humanity. They will strictly work on-line, develop innovation in online tactics that will benefit the other categories, in particular in the area of citizen-led advocacy. They will be opportunity driven (more than mission driven) and their model will be horizontal.  As they will depend on digital liberties, they will very actively be fighting for these liberties. There will be mostly new players in this category.

Winners and losers

The four profiles are archetypes. There isn’t a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ place to be. Successful organisations will be those which find an equilibrium – a modus operandi and funding model – from being situated in one of the four profiles. Key characteristics of the four profiles could very well be successfully mixed by some organisations.

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