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The new political power emerging in the COVID storm

8 April 2020 at 1:01 pm
Neil Pharaoh
Is your social purpose organisation part of the Old Guard or the New Guard? Depending on which side of the line you sit, you could stand to win or lose in a post-COVID lobbying era, writes Neil Pharaoh.

Neil Pharaoh | 8 April 2020 at 1:01 pm


The new political power emerging in the COVID storm
8 April 2020 at 1:01 pm

Is your social purpose organisation part of the Old Guard or the New Guard? Depending on which side of the line you sit, you could stand to win or lose in a post-COVID lobbying era, writes Neil Pharaoh.

As we face the likelihood of a possible depression, a perfect storm is hitting the social purpose sector. Falling revenue (from donors; philanthropic, corporate and even government – as they cut costs to fund COVID response), reduced volunteering (social distancing, requirements to stay inside and unemployment will all impact) and a surge in demand (particularly for food, housing, counselling and health) may combine to debilitate many social purpose organisations. 

The sector’s reputation for having an unwillingness to merge may have to be busted open. Generational bias aside, I suspect it will be the younger social sector leaders who will not just survive, but thrive in the political, advocacy and engagement landscape of a post-COVID lobbying era. And once the initial shock subsides, turning to these younger leaders may now be your best political engagement hope. 

A number of years back, Jeremy Heimans (a former Australian, now New Yorker) wrote a book called “New Power, how power works in our hyperconnected world, and how to make it work for you”. In this book he claims the future is a battle for mobilisation, and those who flourish will be those best able to channel participatory energy. So, what does this have to do with lobbying, advocacy and Federal Parliament?

Read more: In Conversation with Jeremy Heimans

Over the past few weeks, I have seen two trends emerge in the social purpose sector in relation to government engagement and advocacy – I will call them the “Old Guard” and the “New Guard”.

An Old Guard of the usual suspects claiming to represent the social sector have come together. They have gone cap in hand to Canberra and used their networks, influence and organisational size to negotiate a COVID package – which in effect locks in the existing status quo for the next decade, meaning there will be no innovation or shift change for the sector. 

This Old Guard are still sending emails out to the public asking for donations (I have had half a dozen in the last week), and while they may not currently be able to undertake their usual “chugging” (charity mugging), will want a return to business as usual as soon as they can. From their point of view, everything worked beforehand, so it is time to get us back there as quick as possible. And in their opinion, everything which didn’t work can be solved by giving them (and only them) more money or government contracts. 

They will hold traditional meetings and ask for measures that at first glance will “benefit the sector”, but will actually contain a distortedly beneficial effect for them – after all, a 75 per cent tax deduction benefit is worth a lot more for an organisation that receives millions of donations than for an organisation which only collects a few thousand. 

In contrast, the New Guard (picking up trends from “New Power”) are using the time we are all isolated at home to mobilise, build networks and grow influence. They are changing their donor recruitment activities to member building activities – because yesterday’s donors are today’s members, but today’s members will be future donors. They are no longer asking for money (which, as unemployment hits 2 million, will be in short supply) but are instead asking people to write to their local MPs, follow and tweet politicians on social media, and undertake “virtual organising” activities. They are picking up the phone and calling people about issues, encouraging letters to be written and are turning huge numbers of donor-supporters into advocate-supporters. They are aware that if you get somebody to activate, support and engage in a cause, they will be more likely to donate to you in the future. 

The Old Guard rely on the “network effect” of deep political relationships and a black book of contacts and argue that the status quo is the way to go. They will be a more homogenous looking group, and this cohort will sit on the sidelines and neither be involved nor actively participate in large social campaigns such as marriage equality or the climate crisis. They are “old power” in Jeremy’s book.

The New Guard want new dynamics in the social purpose sector – different methods of delivery, less funding to the big national organisations, and more innovation at a local and community level. They will be more technologically savvy and are able to tell you which electorate every one of their supporters is in and how many local MPs they engage with on social media. They can tell you what a community organising model is, how it works, and how it can be scaled. They watched the world’s first online picket line last Monday – in which thousands of people participated not with a political view, but to learn lessons, see how it worked and plan their next move. These are the “new power” Jeremy was referring to. 

So, what does this mean for you and your organisation? Depending on which side of the line you sit, COVID will either be an opportunity to entrench historical government contracts and the public policy influence of a small number of people from typically larger social purpose organisations for another decade, or an opportunity to shape a different funding, policy and regulatory environment with government going forward. 

Short term, I suspect that the Old Guard will win the battle, (entrenched self-interest applies to all sectors and when survival is at stake, even more so) but they will ultimately lose the war. 

Longer term, donor-supporters who transition to advocate-supporters will not only donate more money when they can but, through helping with a shared political purpose and advocacy, also have made themselves tighter and more connected to the organisation they support. 

There are a couple of very smart, social purpose organisations who are doing amazingly well with their advocacy, campaigning and lobbying at the moment – even when they can’t walk the halls of Canberra or have coffee with advisors and public servants. These organisations are doing three things in common:

  • Growing members, supporters and advocates (as opposed to just donors) and leveraging, organising and locally engaging them in communities while they are at home in isolation.
  • Utilising social media, virtual organising and influence – developing structural and systemic engagement models which do not require old style networks.
  • Seeing the opportunity in COVID for new ideas, new innovation, new systems, and new solutions – as they inherently know that if we continue to do what we have always done, we will always get the same outcome.

The final difference between the two groups, and the reason I am certain that the New Guard will ultimately win in the post-COVID era, is that the New Guard are an infinitely more diverse group and represent a different demographic. They already have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inclusion, LGBTIQ+ inclusion is a given and cultural and linguistic diversity is already part of their DNA. There are more women and younger people involved, they are IT natives, and they will learn to enjoy a virtual environment and working from home more quickly. 

So which side will your social purpose organisation back and be part of?


About the author: Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy. Neil has been behind many leading social policy and advocacy campaigns on gender rights, equality, medical research and education, and ran for Parliament in Victoria in 2014 and 2018. He regularly runs workshops and advocacy sessions and advises leading social purpose organisations on their government engagement strategy and systems. @neilpharaoh on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Happenings on the hill is a new fortnightly column focusing on all things politics, policy, campaigns and advocacy. Stay tuned for updates around political trends and elections, lobbying and advocacy news, and hints, tips and ideas on government engagement that are specifically written for the social purpose/for purpose sector.

If you have any ideas, suggestions, tips or questions, please feel free to email Neil Pharaoh at or reach out to him via social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @neilpharaoh.

Neil Pharaoh  |  @ProBonoNews

Neil Pharaoh has spent most of his voluntary and professional life in and around social purpose organisations, government, public policy and advocacy.

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  • Camilla says:

    Neil I am not sure that I agree with your analysis of the old and new guard but let’s say for a moment that you are right, then I would suggest that there is another group in the middle who are essentially utilising the strategies of both the other groups. They see that there is opportunity for evolution of the community sector but conducted in a measured and considered way without disadvantaging vulnerable members of our community and destabilising the community altogether. There is definitely room for the third group in my view…

  • Amanda Thornton says:

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring thinking Neil. Has made me think about possibilities. For me, it distills to caring and acting on caring (of course in a way that is considered and effective) so it works to co-create change for the better, and always characterised by the benefit/beneficiaries being correctly identified and invoved with unhindered agency. This is in contrast to ‘supporting’ that change aim via a transactional process (your ‘old guard’ approach?) that, by it’s nature, tends to ignore that caring is the glue – its deep urge to act and the sticky momentum that it creates. Heartfelt donations to organisations by individuals and families is one of these acts of caring. Personal fundraising is another. Now I l’m trying to imagine this same drive amplified to a new normal for the sector ecosystem. Could that really happen via the seed of disparate organising initiatives (‘new guard’?) Maybe it can – has to stay on the table! Thanks for the thought-starter – anything is possible, we just have to remain open-minded and willing to try.

  • Ewan Filmer says:

    Where is the evidence? Which very smart social purpose organisations are you talking about Neil? Are you willing to predict any time frames?


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