Structural vs single issue campaigning

One of the questions that comes up when you're gearing up for a bit of community do-gooding is "How far do I want to go?" Do you want to fix the whole problem once and for all, or do you just want to get the present problem out of the way? Will this campaign concentrate on a single issue, or will it address the structural imbalance that has led to this problem?

It's probably best to establish this point at the time you recruit your core group of campaigners, as it will determine many of your actions and may be a significant determinant of such things as your commitment to the issue, your ideological position, the time commitment necessary, and so on.

In this help sheet we examine the pros and cons of both approaches so you can make a more informed decision about which direction to take. This is not a decision that should be made lightly, as your success could depend on it.

It is important to remember that if an issue is big enough, other groups will form around it and fill the gaps that you've left.

Single-Issue Campaigning

In single-issue campaigning you address an issue that's immediately at hand. This is sometimes referred to dismissively as the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) approach, but it may nonetheless involve addressing real injustices.

Single-issue campaigning is locally focussed, with a high level of involvement from local residents. Single-issue campaigning also often brings a wide cross-section of society together, all wanting to achieve the same thing but for different reasons.

A good example of this would be a campaign to stop overhead powerlines being installed. Such campaigns will often involve environmentalists, concerned local residents who don't want unsightly powerlines running through their neighborhood, health advocates who are concerned about the radiation, and so on.

Such alliances are often somewhat unnatural and uneasy. They are often formed by the unique circumstances where a small part of several campaigns' ideological positions intercept - but this is precisely their power. They can unite campaigners who would otherwise never see eye to eye.

By uniting such a diverse group you both increase the numbers of people concerned about the issue and provide a diversity of arguments to persuade a larger number of people.

Once you've achieved your single issue goal, ask yourself whether it might not be a good idea to disband the organisation. To continue on could change the campaign to a structural one, and the massive disparities in motivation might then cause internal divisions that could be devastating - or, alternatively, you may be able to continue to work together on the next local issue.

Structural Campaigning

Structural Campaigning addresses the root cause of an issue and is generally a more radical approach, striking at the root of the problem ('radical' comes from the Latin word for 'root').

Because of this you'll generally have fewer people on side, for two reasons: first, because a more radical agenda will lose you the more conservative element, and second, because you'll lose people who don't agree with the structural alternative you're proposing.

It's important to try to prevent alienating people, and for that reason the decision about whether or not to take a structural line in your campaigning should be a group one, with consensus amongst your core campaigners. If there's no consensus, or if you need to heavily compromise your position, this is bound to result in friction and compromised effectiveness. Indeed, internal conflicts over ideological issues are among the biggest destroyers of activist campaigns. If your differences can't be resolved it's sometimes best to leave the organisation. However, it's also true that some of the best ideas come from harnessing the creative tension that these disagreements generate. Really thinking issues through till you come to a position that everyone is happy to put their name to will ensure a united front.

You shouldn't necessarily let the difficulties associated with structural campaigns dissuade you from taking this path. The most meaningful changes that have happened in the world have been as a result of structural campaigns - rights for women, the fall of apartheid, the abolition of slavery, and so on. They've been difficult, and demanding, and the people who began the agitation weren't always alive to see the victory, but they've made our world a better place.

If you're embarking on a structural campaign it's important to make this decision very early on and be upfront about it. This doesn't mean aligning yourself with a particular ideology, but it does mean being clear about what you stand for and the alternative you're advocating.

A structural campaign will also very probably be a much longer and harder fight, requiring higher levels of dedication from core campaigners. A local struggle is easier to win, but has limited gains; a radical campaign might achieve more, but is much more difficult to achieve. In any case, it's a decision that shouldn't be taken lightly, and one that will ultimately be highly rewarding.

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