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:
- What is the key driver of your economic growth?
- 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'.