Are Grey Panthers the next big thing in campaigning?

grey panthers detroitIt’s probably a sign of my advancing years, but I’ve been wondering whether NGOs are missing a trick by endlessly targeting young people to become their activists. Sure, they’re the leaders of tomorrow, but what about us wrinklies? This all came to a head when I went out for a beer with a friend of mine who recently turned 60. He has money, contacts in the music business and elsewhere, he’s an entrepreneur, and a progressive, with decades of history in the co-op movement. And now he’s retired with time on his hands. But all he ever gets from NGOs like Oxfam is appeals for money, never for his time or experience. Think about it, the 60s generation now passing into retirement has money, skills, networks and time. Students have none of those. There are plenty of examples of  ‘old men (and women) in a hurry’ who are remarkably effective lobbyists, from retired CEOs to the formidable nuns I used to work with at CAFOD, with decades of activism under their belts. Why aren’t we harnessing them properly? So what might a ‘Grey Panthers’ movement look like? It would have to be very different from your standard NGO campaign. GPs are too savvy and experienced to want to just send off standard emails, join demos or sign up for Facebook pages. Tactics would have to be more tailored to their experience. For example, here’s how an elite influencing GPs model could work: 1. Find a few champions – typically retired captains of industry who now want to give something back. Find an appropriate mission for them – if they were in the construction industry, set them loose on corruption in contracts; if they were civil servants, maybe a lobby of their former departments; if ex-bankers, the Robin Hood Tax beckons. 2. Ask them to pull together a group of like-minded GPs (maybe trawl your database for a few candidates to add to their own contacts) and draw up a two year strategy for lobbying and advocacy on the relevant issue. 3. Give them some kind of franchise to campaign on your behalf and use your brand, but as a semi-autonomous group. They would need to report back, and be accountable to the organization, but they would have a high degree of independence and initiative so they can use their experience to maximum effect. The only example I’ve come across is the Amnesty International Business Group, which was founded by a classic [caption id="attachment_3930" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Sir Geoffrey (third from right) networking"]Sir Geoffrey (third from right) networking[/caption] old-man-in-a-hurry, Sir Geoffrey Chandler. A former senior manager at Royal Dutch/Shell, Sir Geoffrey was a force of nature, more than willing to march into boardrooms and unleash his cut glass accent to promote human rights in the private sector. And if there’s one thing such people understand, it’s how to get round internal obstacles to progress, and spot management excuses for inaction (whether in the lobby target or, indeed, the NGO). The story of the AI Business Group also shows the difficulties (sorry, I mean ‘challenges’) that can go with working with a bunch of self-confident, assertive older people. It was wound up three years ago, partly because, as one insider told me ‘a semi-autonomous group of grey eminences that report back and consider themselves to be accountable was rather more than some of them were prepared to accept, especially when there were differences of strategy/approach with regard to business and human rights’. NGOs hosting GPs may have to manage a trade-off between effectiveness and the brand risk posed by a bunch of stroppy mavericks doing their own thing. Some of this is happening already. At the global level, there are ‘the elders’ (they sound a bit like a bad sci-fi plot, but the intentions are clearly good); groups like HelpAge International organize older people to campaign on ‘their’ issues, like pensions. But it shouldn’t stop there. I’m not a campaigner these days, but it seems like the Grey Panthers are a huge, untapped resource that is only going to grow as our societies age. So why aren’t there more such groups? Over to you for ideas, suggestions or examples of GPs in action, and for would-be GPs to say what would work for them. Also, in a flagrant steal from Simon Maxwell’s blog, I’m going to start running the odd online poll. First up, should NGO campaigning devote more resources to older activists? And no easy ‘both – and’ responses allowed: more time on grey panthers means less on students and youth. If the technology works, there should be a poll at the top-right of this post. Over to you. Update: The comments have been very helpful in clarifying what NGOs are/aren’t already doing. They involve lots of older people in grassroots campaigns, but they do not seem to be using them in an ‘ambassadorial role’ as described in the post, a la Amnesty Business Group. That’s the bit I think we should reconsider.]]>

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17 Responses to “Are Grey Panthers the next big thing in campaigning?”
  1. Charli

    Hi Duncan,
    the voting button doesn’t appear to have worked… anyway…
    I think in principle the idea of grey panthers is great… however I have campaigned with several old people in Oxfam’s campaigning groups, and whilst they do often have the will and dedication and interest on Oxfam’s issues, they often lack the confidence and technological skills that young people have an abundance of.
    The champions you are talking about “mature” people who come from fairly skilled or specialist areas, but the reality is that many of activists do not have these, and it is the role of NGOs such as Oxfam to build their capacity, giving them the necessary skills to turn that dedication into action, and ensure that their knowledge is up to date.
    I think young people, in particular you mention students, do in fact have great resources of networks, and (at certain times of year), time. Also, importantly, politicians listen to them, as the “leaders of tomorrow.” What they sometimes lack is the continued commitment and depth of knowledge that older activists often have.
    Another point is that its just not as cool to have a bunch of old people fronting a campaign.
    I think the key is to make them work together!
    Duncan: Good points Charli, but the ‘cool’ worries me a bit – hope aging NGO activists are not prioritising working with youth just to get their fix of youthful energy!

  2. Ben Niblett

    Duncan, I think this is what we in the UK do already. In my experience local campaigning groups, political parties, and most other civil society except parent teacher associations for that matter, are doughnut-shaped with most members aged 50-75 and some in their early 20s, with a hole in the middle. That’s mostly because these are the age groups with time, and arguably because older people are less individualist and more inclined to work in groups, and less cynical about engaging with politics and politicians.
    The e-activism and postcard end of things is a much more even spread across the ages, but even there I think the young tend to be outnumbered.
    There’s advantages to this greyness – most politicians will tell you, wistfully, that older people influence them more than younger ones because they’re more likely to vote and less likely to move to someone else’s ward or constituency. The disadvantage may be that the old methods, like regular monthly meetings with a group e-newsletter after each one, seem alien and offputting to younger activists.
    I wonder if prolonged high unemployment might change things as more of the people in the middle acquire spare time? It’s an ill wind…
    Duncan: Thanks Ben, but are we really making use of older people’s experiences and contacts? All too often I have been speaking to CAFOD and Oxfam supporter groups about corporate social responsibility etc, only for someone to come up at the end and tell me they’re an ex-CEO of some company or other – it should have been them giving the talk, but there was no way of involving them in that capacity.

  3. Duncan,
    In the U.S. a great many of the most effective campaigners – those who build relationships with members of Congress for several years and work to keep themselves educated on the the issues are well past their student years.
    While they might not be up on the technology that is useful for online campaigns, most of them would be my first call once a member is ready to have a serious conversation about the issues. Politicians will listen to a critical mass of students and some of them will listen to them one on one but the truth is — they listen better to their contemporaries.
    In terms of where to put assets, you meet your activists where they are and ask them where they want to go with you. The experience and interests of the different demographics work well together and in my experience younger and older activist like working together — they both find it really funny sometimes and if they are any good realize they have a lot to learn from each other. What about trading assets? Get your youngins to teach your panthers about twitter in exchange for some old-school campaigning wisdom…
    Universal truth though – our elders are often are best untapped resource — and any activist who can talk the talk and has walked the walk is ‘cool’ with me.
    Kolleen Bouchane

  4. This conversation has sparked some ideas:
    1 Not convinced that politicians listen much to young activists as tomorrow’s leaders -most of them seem too myopic to see that far ahead. Surely it’s the quality of the campaign, and convincing politicians (or whoever) that the issue matters to them today that makes the difference rather than the age of the campaigners?
    2 Not sure either that someone who just retired at the peak of their career will take kindly to NGOs suggesting that they’re in need of renovation before they can be let loose (AI’s experience suggests not), or that their place is at the back of the demo.
    3 A more sobering thought, as the parent of 2 politically active under-20s, is that today’s activists will, if they are lucky enough to have employment, have to work until they are aged 70.
    4 Old people fronting campaigns not ‘cool’? Hhmm. UNICEF engages respected older people as goodwill ambassadors, and very effective they are too. Noam Chomsky is 81 – wouldn’t some NGO campaigners give their eye teeth to enlist his support! Judi Dench (75) campaigns for Survival International, Vanessa Redgrave(73), Helena Kennedy (60), Lesley Abdela (65) all very active political campaigners. Even Joanna Lumley is entitled to a free bus pass to get to Westminster!

  5. Nicola

    I have to say I remain of the belief that it’s all got to come togehter (I know you didn’t want to give this as an option – sorry!).
    I think you need the energy, ideas, networks and skills of everyone (from students to oaps) to truely build a movement – and my favourite examples of activism are when people of all ages come together i.e. the wave march in London last December!
    What do you think of this project Duncan? Nearly 100 people from the north of england from 5-60 years old taking part … How does that fit in with what you are saying?
    Duncan: Interesting initiative Nicola, keep me posted. The website says ‘Nearly 100 people have decided that, for a week, they are taking on a challenge that, to them, symbolises poverty or is associated with it.’ But how much do you know about the CVs of those 100 people – some of them may have been ending poverty for a living for decades?!

  6. Matt

    Hi Duncan,
    The model you suggest though could be argued isn’t age specific anyway, and is just good engagement, regardless of age.
    Its about meeting people where they are at and giving them the tools and enabling framework to plan their own actions. That model should work regardless of age. “just send off standard emails, join demos or sign up for Facebook pages” wouldn’t work as genuine engagement for most people anyway – would it?
    I would also see young people not as ‘leader of tomorrow’ as they are often seen but as people who can effect change now – especially if INGOs see them more then just people who “send off standard emails, join demos or sign up for Facebook pages”
    Duncan: Thanks Matt and fair point on not using anyone as digital cannon fodder, whatever their age! Don’t worry, I’m kept well away from campaigners…….

  7. Michael

    All political party organizations are run and staffed by retired volunteers. Go into any Democratic or Republican Party office outside of the election, and 80% of the folks you see answering phones, keeping the books, and stuffing the envelopes are retired or on disability. That’s where those folks go.

  8. Ken Smith

    I don’t know their whole history but I’ve come across A4ID
    which is a charity aimed at harnessing the skills of legal professionals (mostly grey or bald I suspect) It’s always going to be difficult for a large NGO to work with a high profile autonomous group for fear of rocking the boat with the rest of the support , I guess.

  9. Diane

    I definitely think charities are missing a trick by not targeting older people. I’m always slightly irritated by campaigning training aimed at say 18-25 year olds – isn’t that ageist?!
    I’m one of Nicola’s Poverty Challenge bloggers, and just scanning through the blog photos I’m beginning to feel like the token “grey panther” (- no reflection on Nicola who has in the past employed me as her intern.) But I think it’s a real shame there aren’t more of us older ones up there. Politicians listen to voters and those who have influence with voters and this tends to be older people. And yes we’re all living longer, “retiring” earlier, with heaps of life experience and transferable skills. Of course I think we need campaigners of all age groups but at the minute I think us oldies are under-represented.

  10. Dear Duncan,
    It is indeed a very good idea to link up with the still largely untapped grey energy source.
    However, the grey panthers give me another frightening thought: what if retiring people just start to lobby for their own, short sighted corporatist interests. Higher pensions and better retirement benefits like Medicare, while refusing the same health services to poor children.

  11. Duncan, I understand your perspective completely and agree that more should be done to get the Gray Panthers involved in social activism. However, I feel that the types of activism they would be wiling to participate in may not be quite as effective as the activism students participate in. Students in general tend to be very outspoken about everything, certainly not all of them but many. They are willing and excited to use their voices and be active. Students want to be in rallies and to do things that they feel make an impact, as they have not yet made their mark on the world. They are willing to march outside in the cold, organize a dance, write letters to senators, anything that excites them and makes them feel apart of something bigger. Students are rash and don’t think about how freezing it will be at the rally, or how much work it may take to pull off a school dance, they just run headfirst at the problem; a tactic that, though often a problem in other situations, works in the world of social action.
    GPs however, at least the ones I know, would much rather participate through more quiet work. Those that I’m familiar with, enjoy being part of committees and attending functions, however they don’t really want to scream and shout to get their point across. They aren’t quite as willing to be leaders in making a difference and are much happier following on the coattails of those in charge. They are happy to donate money and some amount of time, but many feel like they have made their mark on the world and now is their time to relax and walk through life slowly not run head first into it.
    Getting more GPs involved would certainly add to the effectiveness of a given organization, as any organization with more volunteers will likely be more effective. However, I would be surprised if large numbers of GPs became as involved as students are, in the leadership aspect of activism.

  12. Serena

    I really don’t think that politicians are at all bothered about listening to the future Charli…Look what they have done with tuition fees- have they listened?! I think this sparks more questions: how can we make campaigning more inclusive and effective not just across different age groups but also across different ethnic backgrounds and classes? Let’s face it- is solidarity a monopoly of white middle class people in the UK?

  13. Graham Sowter

    I guess it must be true that older folk will be wanting to walk through life rather than run head first into it. However, direct action has to be a good GP tactic. I retire next year at 65 and am looking forward to taking some actions, Iraq, Nuc Power, Cuts etc. Arrest? No problem; don’t have to get up for work, no reputation to lose, can teach youngens already inside, board and lodging at HM Govt (which I’ve already paid for). Prefer to go out with a bang than a wimper