Are Grey Panthers the next big thing in campaigning?

November 2, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

It’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 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.

November 2, 2010
Duncan Green