10 Lessons from Britain's campaign gurus

Earlier this year, I spent two weeks working with British campaigning wizards, 38Degrees — the British sister organisation of GetUp. (Their name is inspired by the tipping point of an avalanche.)

Here are my top 10 lessons for campaigners from our British mates. 

1. The victory saucepan

Watch your head. That big, red saucepan hanging from the ceiling in the 38 office? It’s the victory pan. 

Whenever they win a campaign, someone will rush over to the pan and bang it hard. The staff gather around for the polite round of applause that counts as a rowdy celebration to Brits. 

The victory pan was banged four times in the two weeks I was there. Three of the wins came from their Campaigns By You (CBY) platform. 

The fourth victory was the organisation's biggest to date -- worth a whopping 4 billion sterling: the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne backed down on his proposal to cut tax credits (a form of low-income welfare). It was a shock to 38 Degrees staff and to the nation. Osborne had been talking up the changes for months. 38 were undeniably part of the victory: one of the only organisations running a concerted public campaign, including targeting the House of Lords, which voted against the measures, and running full-page adverts against Osborne, who himself introduced the backflip by saying he "heard the public opposition" to the cuts and had decided not to proceed.

These victories aren't luck. 38 Degrees are obsessed with winning. They talk about it all the time. If they haven't won anything for a few weeks, they fret. 

Naturally, this seems to imbue their young staff with a sense that winning is always possible. More importantly, though, the leadership of 38 Degrees has established very clearly that winning is the primary cultural currency of the organisation. Every organisation has cultural currencies: praise, turf, process, vanity metrics, status, etc. If you think about it, you can probably name the currencies of your office. At 38 Degrees, it's winning. Obsessing over winning has downsides (see my PS), but it's a lot better than other obsessions. 

2. Ambient fundraising

How much of your fundraising comes from people just deciding to drop you a twenty, without you even asking? For 38 Degrees, it's about a third. 

They call it 'ambient fundraising' and they're brilliant at it. 'Ambient fundraising' means donations forms that come after another action. So members will sign a petition, send an email, or take a survey - and the landing page after the action is a donation page. Almost every landing page on their site is a donation ask. 

The simple lesson is: every time a member lands on a page without a useful ask, your organisation is missing out on funding.  

3. Align funding and impact. 

This is the more important lesson about ambient donations: it fundamentally changes the incentives of the organisation. 

I reckon the two most important questions for any organisation are: 

  1. What is the key driver of your economic growth? 
  2. How tightly is it aligned to your theory of change? 

At most NGOs, the answer to Q1 may be "street fundraising" or "grant writing". In that case, the answer to Q2 is probably "Ummm." If you work at 38Degrees, the answers are "more member actions" and "100%". 

Ambient donations are the major driver of economic growth for 38 Degrees. That means to increase growth, they increase the total number of actions (note their focus on this: it's the metric on their homepage in huge font). Their theory of change is that a more active citizenship will lead to more progressive outcomes. 

Perhaps a good way to show the impact of ambient donations is to compare to GetUp!. GetUp has far less ambient fundraising (at least during my time). The number 1 driver of financial growth for GetUp during my leadership was increasing the average donations/donor/year (it went from $25 to about $160). In essence: the most  dedicated members donating more. Fundraising was more strongly correlated with the number of super-active members than with the number of members, or the number of actions. Note that GetUp's membership has increased by 350,000 this year, but the number of donors has actually decreased by 20,000. Fundraising still went up. So GetUp's fundraising was geared to creating asks that will motivate engaged members to take high-barrier actions. 38 Degrees however, see their easiest lever to increase overall fundraising as increasing ambient donations -- which is basically driven by the number of overall actions. 

GetUp is good at converting highly active members to highly active donors. 38 Degrees is good at converting low-barrier actions to low-dollar donations. 38 Degrees' donation/donor/year is about 20% GetUp's. GetUp is getting 5x more money from each donor, but 38 have a much larger base of overall donors.  

All this leads me to think that the two organisations might basically need to swap fundraising strategies with each other.  

Given that the best prospects for recurring and high-value donors are members who have given previously, 38 probably have a huge number of hot leads for phone and recurring fundraising. GetUp has had a strong focus on increasing donations/donor over the last three years, leading to huge financial growth. But the number of total donors/year is plateauing, and there's probably a limit on how much you can optimise donations/year. So it could be that it's best to surge for a few years on broadening the donor base for GetUp -- whereas the most fertile ground for 38 is likely to be increasing donations/donor. 

4. Metrics, metrics, metrics

The 38 team are sitting on a couch trading compliments over beers on a Friday afternoon. What pricks my ears is that a lot of them sound like this: 

"Robin, I really admire the way we all recognised a few weeks ago that action rates were down and your team really focussed on getting them back up above the target" 

No shit. That's magic. The whole team has a shared understanding of, and responsibility for, the key metrics of the organisation. James, tech guru in residence, presents stats each week. There's an online dashboard to track them easily. And the team actually does. While I was there they observed that action rates overall were down, came up with 3 ideas to correct it, and talked about that metric at every major meeting. 

What are the key metrics for your organisation? More importantly, does everyone know what they are? And do you talk about them? 

5 . Don't be a wuss with the brand

Around the world, campaigning groups are creating member-driven campaigning platforms. It empowers members, gives us local relevance, and let's be honest: it's a membership-growth bonanza. 38 Degrees' "Campaigns By You" tool is inspired by, and build on the same technology as, GetUp's CommunityRun platform. Despite starting a good year later, it's far more successful. 

It currently accounts for about 90% of membership growth for 38 Degrees, bringing in millions of new members a year. GetUp's CommunityRun is also successful, but on every metric, a far less vibrant community, and outplayed by Change.org. So what are 38 doing better? 

The first difference is that at GetUp, we decided to put a lot of space between GetUp and CommunityRun. We were worried that people would start campaigns with which we didn't want to be associated -- and that the damage to GetUp's brand would offend members and show a lack of political nous and consistency to journalists and decision-makers. It was the wrong call. It didn't work: journalists still reported CommunityRun campaigns as GetUp campaigns, despite our protestations, we diluted the appeal of the platform for members, and it made us too careful about scaling up good CommunityRun campaigns. 

38-Degrees named their platform "38 Degrees by you," which shows how little they were concerned by that. Their reflection is that it has, if anything, strengthened and inoculated their brand: they look more people-powered. 

The lesson: if you're going to open up, throw the doors right open. Half measures don't work. 

6. Live metrics on big TVs

Another reason 38 are so good at member-driven campaigns? There's a big screen on the wall of the 38 office that shows, in real time, which CBY campaigns their members are backing. It's one of the ways they keep a constant eye on hot campaigns. Their flexible staffing model, outlined below, simply means they are much more willing to drop what they're doing and focus on an urgent campaign. 

This is brilliant for spotting trends. Just before Christmas, they noticed that there were a couple of excellent campaigns picking up momentum on homelessness in Manchester. The local council committed to using available housing stock to house homeless people over Christmas. Seeing the trend, 38 invited their members in other cities to campaign for their city to match Manchester. Clever! 

7. Biggest opportunities to the best people. 

I'm a big fan of the book 'Good to Great.' It argues that we should give our biggest opportunities to our best staff.  Often we have the opposite instinct: we give our biggest problems to our best people. Perhaps that's because, as leaders, we can trust them to handle it, and reduce our stress. I've certainly made that mistake.  

We had some excellent staff working on CommunityRun, but none of them were in our leadership team at the time, which meant they never got the backup or status they needed to really amplify the project. If I try again, I'd put one of our senior leadership team on the project in addition. 38 Degrees put Robin on the project. He's brilliant and his natural leadership has a kind of gravity in the organisation that pulls other resources in.

8. Member-powered media interviews

"Hi there, I'm David Babbs and I'm the Executive Director of 38 Degrees. I'm about to do a major media interview about 38 Degrees - but it's really your organisation so would you take this quick survey? I'll use your responses to the interview." 

Brilliant! How many times do your supporters get a chance to be interviewed by a major newspaper? Or to testify to a parliamentary inquiry? David just made it happen for them. His interview will be all the more powerful for it. And if there's a donations page at the end of the survey, I'm going to take a wild guess and say members will love it.  

It's the kind of thing 38 does all the time. It comes naturally to them because they really care a lot what their members think and see it as their job to bring them into those fora. 

9. Obsession with member surveys

It's Monday morning at 38 degrees. 25 staff grab (what passes in London as) coffees, and huddle around a table. Item 1 is always the same: a review of the member surveys from the weekend. What issues do they care about? What should 38 be campaigning on? 

This goes to one of the most significant differences between GetUp and 38 Degrees: how they make decisions. Thanks to Ben Brandzel, we share the concept of "steward leadership" but I'd say GetUp emphasise 'leadership' and 38 'stewardship'. 

I want to note here that I admire 38 Degrees' focus on surveys, but also worry about it. While I was at 38 Degrees I pulled together a presentation about GetUp's biggest campaigns. Mental health and electoral reform are always at the top of the list. Both were huge victories. Both were campaigns that utterly failed to garner member support when we first launched them. They didn't show up in member surveys. The initial petitions gathered relatively few signatures. Both struggled for donations in the first few months. So why did we run them? Because they're bloody important -- and because we knew in our guts that even if members didn't care yet, we could get them to. 

10. Extreme flexibility

My staff at GetUp would have thrown me out the window if I re-assigned them away from their campaign each week; especially if I did it in an open meeting without asking them! But that's exactly what 38 Degrees do every week. 

It's incredible to watch. Monday morning meetings there's an open discussion about 'resources' and staff are reassigned on the spot. It's like a football team where the coach announces positions in the locker-room as the team runs onto the pitch "OK Sarah you're centre-forward today, and Matt you're physio." Sometimes, everyone is a centre-forward. 

It's incredibly flexible. At its worst, I worry that staff don't have the time or permission to pursue important but non-urgent priorities. At its best, though, it means that when the refugee crisis was breaking in the UK this year, a campaigner who wasn't in the senior team was able to rock up to the Monday morning meeting and make the pitch: everyone in the organisation should down tools and build a new organisation on refugees. And they did. For two weeks, 38 became a refugee organisation, creating a refugee welcome board, which they handed over to allies after two weeks and reverted to normal programming. You don't want to do that every week, but tell me there aren't moments where that's exactly what your organisation should do! 

It's easy to think of 10 reasons this flexibility wouldn't fly at your organisation (#1: staff will throw me out a window). But remember that a great number of Google's most important services (maps, books, news etc) were not 'strategic' projects but rather arose from the flexibility of staff to respond to ideas and circumstances. This made 80/20 time the most celebrated example of creating staff flexibility; 3M is  another. It feels like 38 Degrees have inverted 80/20 time: the 80 is flexible and 20 is set responsibilities (if that). 

Perhaps another approach would be to have a dedicated team for flexible response: specialised generalists, if you like. 


Thanks very much to David and the 38 Degrees team for inviting me to spend some time with them. They really are a great team. They write some cracking emails, so if you're not already a member, check out www.38degrees.org.uk.


PS - When Winning Isn't

I really admire 38's focus on winning - but in praising it I'm reminded that obsession with "winning" can be dangerous. 

Thoreau argued "for every person striking at the roots of injustice there are a thousand hacking at the branches." Lawrence Lessig liked that line so much he built a movement around it. Daniel Hunter's 'Strategy and Soul' uses the metaphor of balloons tied to a rock. You can hit the balloons as many times as you want, but unless you move the rock, they come floating back.

Obsession with winning can make us concentrate on that which is easy to win. Or it can give us bandwagon syndrome: wanting to be part of victories that probably happening with or without us. At GetUp I suffered from both. I also learned how pyrrhic victory can be. With allies, we won a euphoric victory on live animal exports only to see it reversed six months later. We rallied behind carbon pricing, only to see it become a platform for conservative electoral victory and climate backsliding.  

On the most important issues of our time -- immigration, climate change, trade etc -- roots are thick and deep. The worst consequence of a pre-occupation with winning would be that we don't even really work on those tough issues at all. Instead, we concentrate on areas where we can win. Every organisation knows those campaigns. Maybe it's cute animals, or recycling, or bees. You can convince many members, and maybe even yourself, that it's the most important campaign around. You can argue that the gains in membership or profile will help you win big fights. Meanwhile, those roots are getting thicker. 

I don't mean this as criticism of 38 Degrees. It was just a striking realisation when I looked back on 8 years of GetUp campaigns and realised that 95% of the impact came from 5% of my work. Most of that 5% happened when we were able to lift our gaze from the next 'moment' and 'win'. 


Howard Bloom does

Really. Who gets their name stitched into the breasts of their shirts?

Howard Bloom does, and I’m glad for it. Because sitting across a coffee table, I saw it and googled him. Turns out Howard Bloom isn’t a brand of shirts or an employer; it is indeed the name of the bloke wearing the shirt. Confirmed by google image and wikipedia photo.

Born in 1943 in New York, Howard Bloom is credited (by a wikipedia article) as launching the career of Chaka Khan and Stephanie Mills, and for doing PR for Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bob Marley. OK then.

Howard is also the author of a book called How I Accidentally Started the Sixties – a title so hubristic as to make me suspect he might also be the author of aforementioned wikipedia article and may be editing it on his open laptop as we speak.

Other published works include The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History, Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century, and The Genius of the Beast: A Radical re-Vision of Capitalism. Righto.

“Excuse me mate, but I was really curious so I googled Howard Bloom. Did you happen to start Chaka Khan’s career and write three books about human history, evolution and a radical re-vision of capitalism?”

Yes he did. And it turns out he’s not editing his own wikipedia page but rather writing a feature for the Washington Post, to which he presently returns with a poorly controlled smile of satisfaction.

The world is full of interesting narcissists. I think they should all have their names on their shirts.


As the cafe closed and we chatted on the way out Howard stops to put on his layers. Jumper, Parka and Beanie: all emblazoned with his name too.

Conversation with a man who dresses exclusively in his own personal brand is, as you might imagine, something of a one way street. Regardless I found his idea interesting:

Fuck sustainability. Mother Nature does not build everlasting Edens for the eco-conscious. Mother Nature is a bitch. She’s tossed her children a major die-off every 26 million years or so, a total of 148 major die-offs that we’ve been able to count. She’s shocked this planet with six far bigger mass extinctions, six enormous holocausts of species.

Basically, at some point in the future, distant or imminent, we need to move to other planets and hedge our bets on this rock. Howard’s pretty serious about this. He and his mate Buzz Aldrin are trying to convince world leaders to invest in solar space energy (pretty much as it sounds – big solar panels in space) that will help us expand life to asteroids, the moon and beyond. It’ll also be easier to construct buildings in zero gravity apparently. Glad someone’s thinking about the long term.

I bet Howard’s spacesuit will have his name stitched onto the breast.



The right to be bigoted

For The Australian, August 13, 2015

There's a simple fix to end the clamouring for censorship of political TV ads. 

This week channels 10 and 7 have rejected an ad against same sex marriage equality. Foxtel decided to allow the ad, but are now facing consumer boycotts for the decision. How ridiculous. 

As someone who has run TV ads in favour of marriage equality, I would be remiss not to fight for the right of those who disagree with me to do the same. 

Encouraging private companies to exercise political censorship is a dangerous idea. Imagine this: come next election, Channels 10 and 7 decide that they will only accept ads for the one Liberal Party, but not for the ALP. It would be outrageous: private companies abusing a public good—our airwaves—to censor some political views but not others. 

Thankfully, they’re not allowed to. The Broadcasting Services Act prevents broadcasters from refusing political television ads ... but only from political parties, and only during elections. It's not enough. Politics is far too important to be left to politicians, and important political debates don’t just happen at election time. Marriage equality is a great example. Groups like GetUp, Australian Marriage Equality, and even a number of large public companies, have been funding advertising campaigns to convince Australians to end discrimination against same-sex couples. They’re good ads, they’re well-funded, and their argument is clearly winning. So why are some so scared ofopponents running their ads too? 

One argument is that the ads are offensive. I find plenty of ads on TV offensive. Many are sexist in tone, or simply shilling products that are terrible for the planet. If we were to ban all advertisements someone found offensive, there wouldn’t be much left on TV. 

But, you might say, these ads against marriage equality ads cause harm to people, particularly young queer Australians. The particular ad I saw was relatively innocuous , but in general I agree.Many advertisements cause harm. I can think dozens that push unhealthy body image, racial or gender stereotypes, gambling products, unhealthy food, and many more. Besides, far more harm is caused by the homophobic remarks of certain politicians, but we certainly don’t propose to censor them.

Finally, one might argue that these ads are actually hate speech—opinions so vile and harmful that they should be banned from publication. I agree that such limits on free speech must exist, but we must tread very, very carefully in banning opinions. These ads come anywhere near the level that warrant censorship. But even if you disagree, do you really believe that the arbiters of such censorship should be a handful of advertising executives at commercial TV stations? Surely not. We have hate speech laws, set out in legislation and accountable in court. If they’re insufficient, make an argument to change them—not for more political censorship at the discretion of Foxtel or Channel 10. 

Some might say that broadcasters are private companies and should be able to exercise complete discretion on what ads to air. There are two problems there. Firstly, the airwaves don’t belong to broadcasting companies. They are a public good licensed to those companies by the Government with conditions to protect public debate. Secondly, I doubt TV companies want to be in the position of having to make sensitive political calls on each controversial ad! Surely it would be in their interest to have parameters laid out simply and fairly in broadcasting regulations, which they can simply follow. Less work, less liability, more profit. 

Ultimately, the best response to bigotry isn’t to ban it, but to fight it. When Katter Australia Party ran homophobic ads in the Queensland State election four years ago, I worked with his brother Carl Katter to film a response calling out homophobia and telling gay and lesbian Queenslanders that they belong. Backed by GetUp members, Carl bravely took on his brother in the public domain, and he convincingly won the argument. Katter Australia Party admitted after the election that their advertisement was a huge mistake and cost them votes. That’s a better response. 

I’ve seen Australian TV companies block ads criticising China on human rights in Tibet, and ads exposing Woolworths for their harmful poker machines. We don’t know who made those decisions, nor on what basis. It could have been personal ideology, or perhaps protecting the financial interests of big advertisers. Neither are an acceptable reason to censor political views, and if we're against corporate censorship for one, we must be against it for all, including those we disagree with. 

So if Tony Abbott's Government wants a chance to stand up for freedom of expression, here it is. Simply amend the Broadcasting Services Act to allow every group free political speech without censorship. That would end the clamouring for censorship every time someone runs a controversial political ad. I have an inkling this might not be the last time. 

Don't give charities cash; give politicians hell.

For the Sydney Morning Herald, March 17, 2015


"Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra, Newcastle and the Gold Coast have been flattened overnight - their entire populations left homeless." 

Imagine that headline. That's what happened to Vanuatu yesterday. It's still chaos, but early estimates are 70 per cent of their population has been left homeless overnight. How would Australia rebuild from that? It's impossible to even imagine. And it's not just Vanuatu. Kiribati and Tuvalu are also devastated. 

Thankfully, Australians are, as usual, generously reaching into their pockets and chipping in to the Red Cross and other services. 

But donating isn't enough. In fact, our charity is a Band-aid over the gashing cuts we have allowed to Australian aid. 

The Abbott government cut $8 billion from Australian foreign aid last budget. By contrast, Australians donate about $4 billion to charity a year, and a third goes to humanitarian efforts. So the government cut the equivalent of six years of all our private humanitarian donations in one budget announcement. 

Right now, Australians are less generous than we have ever been, contributing half what we did under the McMahon and Whitlam governments 40 years ago. 

The Coalition has led the charge, delivering what Tim Costello called "unprecedented and immoral" cuts to foreign aid just before Christmas. But the ALP has been at it, too: for two budgets in a row they cut Australia's future foreign aid, having promised to increase it. 

It's not their fault though, it's ours. We get the politicians we deserve, and we deserve scrooges. 

Every year, before making budget cuts, the government and opposition poll Australians to see what the "soft spots" for cuts are - where can they cut without us complaining. Time after time, their pollsters tell them their voters don't care about Australian aid. Time after time, after the cuts, church and charity leaders tell us the outcomes: literally hundreds of thousands of people will die who would otherwise have been helped by our aid. Not only that, our immediate neighbours will be less safe, less educated, less friendly to Australia, and less likely to trade with us. 

And I did mention the hundreds of thousands (no really) of people who will die, and go without education? Just checking. 

The other area Tony Abbott's government has been quick to cut? Funding for climate change adaptation for our neighbours like Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. 

The President of Vanuatu and the UN Secretary General have already pointed out that climate change has made cyclones like Pam far more destructive. That's because sea levels have already risen – although not nearly as much as they will – meaning more water in cyclone storm surges, which is what causes most of the damage. Low-lying pacific islands like our poor neighbours are particularly vulnerable, as Pam shows. 

For decades, Vanuatu and other countries have argued that they urgently need international help to prepare for climate events like cyclone Pam. Tony Abbott's government last year cut our contribution to that fund. So not only is Australia contributing more to climate change, we're contributing less to help those most affected by climate change, and when they are affected, our aid coffers are empty. 

So let's all pick up the phones and call the Red Cross to help. But before you put the phone down, call your local MP and Senator too, and tell them that you do give a damn about Australian aid – and that times like this show why Australians can be so much better than the scrooges they've made of us. 

Sam McLean is GetUp's national director.

Tastes like recession

The guy behind in line me is a somewhat unusual suspect at a vegetarian falafel joint: 50, buzzcut, nice-dad demeanour. He tells the cashier “I’m on a budget: $4.25”.

Turns out $4.25 doesn’t get you much falafel in NYC.

Immediately, even less likely suspect in a thick Jersey accent: “Have whatever you want man it’s all on me. We’re American. What are we here for? You gotta stick together. Sometimes bad things happen to good people.” Once were platitudes.

Our protagonist is a bloke from Jersey. He lives in Brooklyn now – about 2 blocks from me in Park Slope it turns out. Joe goes back to Jersey 2 days a week to remind himself where he’s from... just in case the baseball jersey, cap, and accent he carries with him ever failed? Joe has a Republican sticker on his phone case.

1 week after September 11 Joe joined the military and served for 3 years. He left his engineering firm. When he left the military he bought two Peruvian restaurants in Brooklyn which he owns and runs. Takings are down 30% this year.

The older man lost his money over-investing in his own invention: a reclining chair with a built in waterfall for deep relaxation (where does the waterfall go? yeah i'm not sure). It’s not clear whether the recession made this product unviable, or it was just unviable. Not clear to him at least.

“They’re not bums,” Joe says after the nice-dad-demeanour man leaves. “Just ordinaries like us. A few months ago you could’ve walked into their houses like, 'damn you’re living it up'”.

In America, there’s a special kind of empathy for the poor if once they were rich. I’m not sure how Joe feels about people who have always been poor. I liked him a lot. Peruvian for dinner tomorrow.