Current approaches to digital campaigning are leading to tension, mistrust and a lack of transparency according to a new report urging charities to re-examine the digital tactics used to influence decision and policy makers.
The survey of charities, beneficiaries, MPs and technology vendors throws doubt into whether commonly used digital campaigning efforts are effective for bringing together key players around a common cause. Digital campaigning is popular because it is easy, inclusive, far reaching and connective.
Over the past 11 years we have seen the rise of some of the UK’s biggest petitioning platforms such as Change.org and 38 Degrees, and Parliament responded to this shift by creating their own petitioning platform in 2006. However, the Social Change Agency report found that digital platforms such as mass email petitioning could be damaging trust, misleading supporters and having the opposite effect of what is intended. "The rise of technology has enabled campaigning to take up a whole new space," says the report.
"Petitions and videos can go viral. Rather than 100 people signing a petition with their pens, an online petition can gain reach one million signatures within hours. But many digital campaign metrics of success are geared towards scalability rather than impact." "It is clear from our interviews with decision-makers that they are often impressed more by a smaller number of tailored, specific communications from constituents or others whose views matter to them than they are to mass emails or claimed petition numbers."
The report warns against unfocused mass email campaigns. Concerns about the way data will be used fuels doubts about the integrity of e-campaigning or ’clicktivism’, while many decision makers report that charities appear to use e-campaigning not because they think it is effective but to shore up their reputation in the eyes of their supporters. "The overuse of the same digital campaigning tactics have led to a desensitisation of these methods by decision makers.
But, more than that, they have led to an active mistrust of the charity sector," says the Social Change Agency. Moreover, the report says the voices of those with lived experience are often inadequately represented in charity digital campaigns. "Digital campaigners often work in silos, away from those with lived experience (and even organisational colleagues); those with lived experience are inadequately supported in participating in campaigning; and charities are often poor in identifying which of their campaigning supporters are able to offer lived experience."
Those with lived experience of an issue are the very people that should benefit hugely from the rise of digital, says the report. Their voices can be amplified through the multitude of channels and can be effective agents of change instead of passive case studies. But right now, these voices of lived experience are being overshadowed by the sheer volume of voices that digital campaigning permits, the report warns.
Alongside the findings and pointing out areas of bad practice, the report includes a raft of recommendations for the charity sector, technology providers and for MPs to begin rebuilding broken trust and create more effective e-campaigns. It is accompanied by a toolkit which allows charities to interrogate their digital campaigning practices and examine in which digital campaigning tactic they are excelling and in which areas there is a need for improvement.
Campaigns need to be easy, inclusive and connective. Recommendations include designing alternative KPI models, creating an integrated communications plan, ensuring the public affairs team include those with lived experience of a cause, and fostering an atmosphere of collaboration across organisations.
Many of the recommendations also bring digital campaigning into the context of governance, organisational structure and funding restrictions. Esther Foreman, Director of The Social Change Agency explains why this report is relevant for charities now: “This research has come at an important time. As innovations in technology offer endless possibilities for digital campaigning, charities need to be aware of who is being left behind. The mass email model is broken, and it has impacted on those with lived experience the most. Our Lost Voices toolkit helps charities to interrogate their digital campaigning practices, so that any new innovation will centre the voices of lived experience.” Click here to download the full report, or click here to get the toolkit.