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Social change is a very broad term for transformation (large or small) in parts of, or across, a given society or group. In a series of studies with smaller, social welfare voluntary organisations, we understood social change to be a positive improvement in the social order that increases the common good (understood very locally as well as nationally). Examples of social change would be where an organisation/individual is concerned about the causes as well as the presenting ‘problem’ and is prepared to initiate solutions or steps to solutions.


Advocacy & campaigning for social change

What are the characteristics of an organisation that effectively drives social change? What is the best way to approach this work? What helps and what gets in the way?



Read on for our collated learning about advocacy and campaigning for social change, which culminates in our recent case study for Detention Action exploring their successful use of strategic litigation.

Social change


Understanding problems

& finding solutions for the common good.

Advocacy & campaigning for social change


Characteristics of voluntary organisations that work for social change


  • Direct work with people facing disadvantage

  • Small and local – based in the community

  • Strong leadership

  • Volunteer support

  • Distinctive values and ethos

  • Operating in a challenging environment

Advocacy & campaigning for social change


Direct work with people facing disadvantage


‘We are not restricting people to timescales, not giving a treatment. Change takes time and we work over time. Clients will come and engage, they may drop off but then re-engage and can pick up where they left off.’

Advocacy & campaigning for social change


Small & local – based in the community


‘This work pulls you in. The families are not just numbers, we create relationships and you feel a sense of responsibility.’

Advocacy & campaigning for social change


Strong leadership


‘We have to be strategic and decide not to do some things.’

Advocacy & campaigning for social change


Volunteer support


‘There are more volunteers than staff – volunteers have always been at the heart of the work we do. It’s not just done to save money – it’s part of our work.’

Advocacy & campaigning for social change


Distinctive values & ethos


‘The hunger for the struggle. We want to change the world!’

‘The purpose is to give opportunities for people to overcome exclusion. It is not something we are doing to people – we are providing opportunities.’

Advocacy & campaigning for social change


Operating in a challenging environment


‘We're taking more complicated referrals.’

‘Statutory bodies deliver less than they were.’



Over a series of research and evaluation projects, we have learnt about the different ways local voluntary organisations work to achieve social change.


These organisations have between five and 15 members of staff; 15 – 30 income streams; and turnovers of around £200-£500,000 per annum. 


For some, social change takes the form of advocacy for individuals; for others, it involves campaigning.



Vol Orgs & Social Action 2


Support & advocacy for individuals


'At the core of it is helping people do things for themselves. There are structural barriers which impinge on individual ability to get on with their lives. We can’t change all the big things but we can change the small things.’

Vol Orgs & Social Action 2


Working with local groups & networks


‘With people from such diverse backgrounds it’s about sharing what we know so other providers can understand clients’ needs, such as health and housing providers.’

Vol Orgs & Social Action 2


Influencing professional practice


‘We’re involved in local policy and legislation. So I am part of the training board – so we are deciding on guidelines notes on neglect for all agencies in the county. We’ve set up a practice board where any practitioner working with a child can look at services being provided and identify gaps.’

Vol Orgs & Social Action 2


Influencing policy


‘We do it in various ways. Feeding back to local and national policy, we tweet, share, do research with the police, do consultations. We have contact with the MP who told us to write a report. We write articles for the local paper, do training for GPs, aim to get the Clinical Commissioning Group aware, and do training for the police.’

Vol Orgs & Social Action 2


Challenging social attitudes & beliefs


‘I hope it contributes to a wider understanding in society – it can create a change in people’s knowledge. So there are two benefits: to the families who are supported but it also contradicts the scrounger image – the “them and us” idea.’

Social change – what helps?


  • Relationship of trust with local people: ‘Starting where people are.’


  • Change work is indistinguishable from practice work: ‘Service or advocacy? It’s both.’


  • Synergy between campaigns and casework: Policy and campaign priorities largely dictated by issues emerging from client feedback.


  • Strong senior staff with capacity: The time and space to attend meetings and speak out, in order to influence networks, coalitions and policy.


  • Independence: The importance of a degree of independence in funding, in order to speak out about local public sector policy issues.


  • Communication: Being able to articulate their social change role, by thinking about where on the spectrum of social change work they are best placed to focus.

Still from Quaker Social Action film read-more


Duncan McLaggan shares the work of Quaker Social Action

Social change – what hinders?

  • Welfare cuts and austerity measures: The work itself is demanding enough without tackling wider issues.

  • Lack of power: Example – An urban organisation working with families in poverty struggles to get people to feel they have power over their lives or that they matter to those in authority. The area is often targeted for initiatives that are short-lived with little real long-term impact. Even longer-term resources such as the area’s Community Centre have recently closed down as a result of council cuts. One staff member described how local people feel ‘surveyed and piloted out’, and therefore wary of attempts to change things.

  • Negative media portrayal: For example, people on benefits and immigrants creates divisions in communities and stigmatises individuals, making it harder to build social cohesion.

  • Challenges in rural areas: The time consuming nature of attending meetings and related lack of access to networks and power can make it difficult to exert influence at more than an individual or family level.

  • Articulating the impact of social change work: ‘We make a lot of change. I know because I see it in the families. I see the staff. The work is preventative so it is very hard to say what effects it had – if you see a family – like a train crash about to happen … it is not easy because you’re saying you stopped what would have happened.’

          Case study

          Advocacy & campaigning for social change


          Four lessons from Detention Action's strategic litigation


          • When to use strategic litigation? 

          • Risk versus reward

          • Sophisticated advocacy strategy

          • Roles

          Advocacy & campaigning for social change


          Issues suitable for strategic litigation are likely to be... 

          • Entrenched: where other approaches have not worked

          • Highly politicised: where public campaigning may be challenging or needs a boost: 'it was partly about depoliticising the issue, it was so toxic'

          • Unlawful: so there is a clear basis for arguments: 'If you conclude it is unlawful, you can win'

          • Well-evidenced: 'You have to be able to nail the evidence, and you can't do that for every issue. You can't leave yourself vulnerable, judges don't want to overturn the system'

          • Well-timed: 'It's important to think about timing, work out what is going on out there - think about why any previous challenges were not successful'

          Advocacy & campaigning for social change


          Risk versus reward


          Using strategic litigation as a campaign tool is a huge undertaking for a small organisation. There are undoubted challenges inherent in this approach - it is hard work, time-consuming and potentially financially and reputationally risky. Yet, as this case demonstrates, it can be a highly effective campaign tool. As a result, organisations may require support in weighing up whether, when and how to use strategic litigation. 

          Advocacy & campaigning for social change


          Sophisticated advocacy strategy


          One of the reasons the litigation in this case was successful was that it formed part of a 'sophisticated' advocacy strategy, which carefully considered what approaches to use: 'litigation needs to be one tool in an overall campaigning approach; you need to start with the issue and then work out the correct response and not go for litigation for its own sake.'

          Advocacy & campaigning for social change




          Having a capable and mature NGO to front the coalition was critical. This role, of simultaneously being prepared to 'put your head above the parapet' and of undertaking the largely invisible legwork of building the collaboration, was vital in developing momentum and galvanising the sector behind the case. In turn, this ensured that a highly diverse group of organisations worked together, bringing a wealth of expertise about issues affecting clients; different approaches to advocacy; and legal expertise. 


          Detained Fast Track Litigation Case Study: Detention Action

          Leila Baker, Miranda Lewis

          Are you interested in the practice of bringing lawsuits to effect social change? This case study, commissioned by Detention Action, looks at the collaborative process that led to the suspension of the Detained Fast Track. We highlight the success factors, risks and challenges, ending with four lessons from the strategic litigation.

          Learn more about IVAR