Five lessons poverty campaigners can learn from Marcus Rashford

Today’s front pages are awash with the image of young black footballer, Marcus Rashford and his win for over one million families, who will now benefit from a summer extension of the free school meal voucher scheme.

Cynics may think that yesterday’s government U-turn on the back of Rashford’s campaign was down to ‘good PR’ or a ‘celebrity endorsement’. In my opinion, that would be doing Rashford, the public and politicians a disservice. What has played out over the last few days is a masterclass in the powerful combination of simultaneously nailing public and political will building. Campaigners up and down the country will have undoubtedly looked on with open mouths as Rashford got into position, and scored. Each wondering, why can’t I play like that? In the case of poverty campaigners, we can often hit dry spells where it feels like the goals just aren’t coming no matter what tactic we try. I don’t believe that is down to a lack of talent or poor strategies in our sector, but rather our lack of discipline around set pieces. In my experience, we often think, re-think and think again before we take a position to shoot and by the time we’re done, the goal posts have shifted.

JRF and The Frameworks Institute have joined forces to create an intelligent communications strategy to talk about poverty in a more effective way, one that offers those set pieces that could shift hearts and minds. It is from that strategy, and my observations that I draw these lessons:

1. Poverty over politics

Rashford said repeatedly that his plea was not about politics, but about protecting people. This is so important. It is infuriating how many people write off policy asks on the basis that they are ‘leaning’ towards a political persuasion. We need to take the political sting out of our asks. Yes, we all know that politics is everything and everything is politics, however that shouldn’t stop us seeking common ground. Bashing parties gives detractors an immediate defence.

2. The power of experience

Rashford is an expert in poverty, because he has lived it. He doesn’t need a PHD to prove ‘he gets it’, he just does. You can’t argue with his experience or his story. His passion for the issue of child poverty was written all over his face as he recounted tales from his childhood. It wasn’t scripted, he owned it. Those of us seeking social change know the power of stories and we are getting much better at collaborating with the owners of those stories, but there is a long way to go before we see the kind of ownership and empowerment we’ve witnessed here.

3. The messenger is half the message

Rashford is a credible, authentic messenger. Partly due to his personal experience, but also because of who he is and what he does. In terms of his career, he has nothing to gain through putting his name to this. In fact, some may have warned him off getting involved. All too often we see messengers being labelled in a certain way due to their perceived interests. People think they know what they are going to say before they open their months, and can write of the message before they’ve closed it again. ‘Oh well, that person would say that because they work for them, or they support that’. With Rashford, that didn’t seem to come up. He is a novel messenger, somebody you wouldn’t necessarily expect to front this and a popular figure who cuts across class, race and politics. Nobody is denying his millions of followers across Twitter and Instagram didn’t help, but there have been bigger stars than Rashford launch campaigns and watch them crash.

4. Keep it simple

When it comes to something like solving poverty, it’s far from simple. We know that the solutions are complex and multifaceted. However, that complexity shouldn’t stop us cutting through to audiences with a simple message that people can easily understand and get behind. Think tanks and campaigners often tie themselves in knots coming up with messages and ‘the right ask’, rather than biting bits off and taking a punt. Perhaps we risk progression for the sake of seeking perfection. Will free school meal vouchers solve poverty? No. It’s not even a very good system. The issues with its design have been widely reported. However, vouchers will offer a lifeboat to sinking families. They are a stop-gap, not a solution, but one that will genuinely help many day-to-day. ‘Extend free school meals’ is a clean, simple ask that anybody and everybody can understand, and ‘because it’s the right thing to do’ is a moral argument that is hard to disagree with.

5. Mass appeal

The power of sport, arts and culture to draw people together has long been recognised. But as campaigners, are we putting enough resources into exploring their potential as vehicles to change? We’ve seen Fifa team up with mental health charities, and tonight as football returns to our screens, we see the words Black Lives Matters on the back of players’ shirts. These connections are powerful, they have the potential to reach those we think are hard to. There are also many examples of films, TV shows and documentaries with messages of hope and justice that cut through to the mainstream. This is the space that social change makers need to occupy. We need to forge partnerships, networks and ideas alongside the sports, creative and entertainment industries if we are to be relevant to the masses. We also need to expand the media and platforms that we engage with and how we rate ‘success’. Rashford’s appeal has been covered across broadcast, print and social channels spanning the spectrum. He didn’t rely on those that ‘were likely to agree with him’, he used his profile to get in front of the ‘non political’ and that paid dividends.

We know that Marcus Rashford didn’t do this completely alone, he had support of course, and we also know that the school voucher policy has been rumbling around the corridors of Westminster for a while. Various people have pushed for the extension and it was gaining traction. However, I have no doubt that it was Rashford who got it over the line. Without him and his approach, MPs inboxes wouldn’t have been jam-packed in the way that’s been reported, without him it wouldn’t have been trending on social media, covered on every channel and written about in every paper. We are in extraordinary times, the Coronavirus pandemic has sharpened and focused minds towards some of the injustices that exist in our society, the environment was ripe for this campaign. There was a mere moment where the public and political agendas were aligning and the crowd were roaring. Rashford took a shot, and scored.

Well played.

Doing lots of digital things to solve UK poverty. AKA Head of Strategic Communications, Design & Development at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.