Why are campaigners so bad at internal influencing?

Campaigners are brilliant influencers.

That’s what they do on a daily basis.

Persuading politicians or the media or the public to get behind their cause or to make a change.

So, given that they’ve learnt the art of influencing externally …

Why are many campaigners so dreadful at internal influencing?

That’s my experience anyway.

When it comes to persuading their colleagues in the policy team or the press office or marketing or fundraising, why do some campaigners end up banging their heads on the table in despair?

When they’re trying to get their chief exec or senior management team behind their campaign, why do they end up crying that no one understands them?

This issue may not be unique to campaigners.

Internal relationships within organisations are complicated.

But given that we’re professional influencers, campaigners have got no excuse.

So why are some campaigners dreadful internal influencers? And what can we do about it?

The main problem – I think – is this -

Campaigners fail to apply the lessons that they’ve learnt when influencing externally to an internal context.

So here’s 5 tips that I hope will help campaigners to win over their internal colleagues:

Tip 1: Understand your target

When planning a campaign, you’ll spend a lot of time thinking about the motivations of your target and what is likely to influence them.

Take a Government Minister.

If they’re the target of your campaign then (among other things) you’ll consider their ideological position, their political ambitions, their local situation, their professional background and perhaps even their family ties when thinking about what will motivate them to back your campaign.

You’ll think about their key relationships – say with their Secretary of State or the Prime Minister or with backbenchers.

And you’ll think about the context that they’re working within – and whether your campaign presents a good opportunity for them or is frankly a pain they could do without.

Each of these factors will help you to consider the best strategic approach for getting them to act on your issue.

Internal influencing is no different.

You want to get your chief exec on board – well, how much time have you given to thinking about their motivations?

What kind of pressures are they facing at the moment – does your campaign help them to tackle these or is it a distraction?

What do you know about how they make decisions? Do they like lots of detail or are they a big picture person?

It’s no good simply making assumptions about the people you need to get on board internally. Do your homework, just like you would when considering an external target.

Tip 2: Build a coalition

It’s rare that a single organisation or individual can achieve change on their own.

Even the most powerful or influential campaigner needs to build a coalition and secure the support of champions to push their campaign forward.

And it’s often surprising coalitions that make decision makers wake up and take notice.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth campaigning together? Well, so what. You’d expect them to agree, wouldn’t you.

Greenpeace and British Gas campaigning together? Well, that’s a different proposition – and one that might make your target sit up and listen.

And the same approach works internally.

If the campaigns and marketing teams are generally at loggerheads – then perhaps that’s exactly the team or Director that you need to get on board, so that you can start to win over other key people internally.

Build these alliances early and think about who else internally really carries weight and would be an interesting or surprising advocate for your cause.

Tip 3: Give them what they want

As I said in tip 1, you need to do homework about your campaign target.

A Minister may want a promotion – and may see your campaign as an opportunity to gain some good publicity and earn brownie points with the PM.

Perhaps they just want a quiet life and will do anything to make your issue go away.

But when it comes to internal targets and decision makers, campaigners simply don’t give enough thought to what they want.

Perhaps income generation and fundraising targets are the overwhelming priority for your organisation at the moment.

How does your campaign help with that?

Perhaps your policy team are wedded to working on a particular issue that is not a priority for you.

Can you help them with that – and in return get their backing and support for your campaign?

Your press office are struggling to hit their targets for front page coverage or broadcast hits.

So how does your campaign help them to achieve this?

All too often campaigners think that the rest of their organisation has exactly the same motivation as they do.

The fact is that they don’t.

They’ll want your organisation to make a positive difference. But they have their own day to day pressures.

So why not spend more time thinking about how you can help them – and use this as a quid pro quo to get them on board with your campaign.

Tip 4: Tell a story

Influencing externally requires you to tell a story.

As a result, campaigners spend a lot of time working on their elevator pitches and propositions, so that their emails to supporters or their press releases or their meetings with MPs get the result they want.

Do we go to the same effort when convincing our colleagues of why they should get involved with or support our campaign?

Or do we fall into the trap of thinking that they should already understand the problem that we face.

Or that they should already be aware of the solution that we’re proposing.

Or that they should already be reading the same newspaper reports that we’re pouring over on a daily basis – and as a result already know and understand the political situation that we’re trying to influence.

Campaigners often expect far too much of colleagues who – as I’ve said – have their own focus and preoccupations that may appear to be far removed from our day to day campaigning.

To tackle this and to win them over requires us to tell our colleagues a story.

To set out why we’re campaigning, what we want and how we’re going to achieve change.

To explain why it’s important for the whole organisation.

And why it should be important for them.

Sometimes this story harks back to the heritage of the organisation – explaining why and how this is part of a long tradition of transformational change that we’ve all been part of.

Sometimes this story points to a new organisational strategy. Where you can explain how the campaign exactly fits with the new direction that the Chief Exec or Board is setting for the organisation.

The story needs to be simple.


And you need to keep repeating it.

Tip 5: Have a plan

Ah, campaign planning.

Is there anything better in life?

Time spent with a team of campaigners, working on a whiteboard and working through different potential theories of change.

Drafting campaign strategy documents with clear objectives.

Pulling together a compelling summary of your strategic approach – on one page!

Setting out the different phases of your campaign, so that you can get from here to there.

A good campaign strategy and plan takes time to devise.

It’s rarely something that you can do alone.

You need to bounce it off others. You need help to test your assumptions.

It’s a living document that you have to revise when you find that your initial theory of change was wrong.

Or when something significant happens, like a change of Minister.

But how much do campaigners ever think about their plan for influencing internally?

I’m not suggesting that it needs to be as rigorous a process as the one that you’ll go through for your actual campaign – but as the old saying goes “fail to plan, plan to fail”.

By working through tips 1 to 4, campaigners should have enough of an idea to build a plan to win over other teams or their chief exec.

And it’s vital that they do.

As I look around, I see too many organisations where campaigning has been pushed into a corner.

Where it has got stuck due to a lack of internal support.

Or where senior leaders are not visibly out there the case for change.

This is why it’s great to see the Sheila McKechnie Foundation (disclaimer: I’m a trustee!) holding a on how campaigners can influence internally.

You’ll get to hear from , who have done so much to get the whole organisation behind their agenda for change.

And from , who has a wealth of experience of getting other teams in influential organisations like Oxfam, the Red Cross and the Refugee Council to get behind his campaigns.

And learning from people like Anna and Jonathan – as well as from your own experiences of influencing externally – is key if campaigners are finally going to be as successful at winning over their own colleagues as they are at winning the support of the public, the media and politicians.

Head of Campaigns at Christian Aid. Interim Chair of campaign experts, the Sheila McKechnie Foundation. Ex-Campaign Director at Which?. All views my own.