Martin Kirk


I’ve long suffered from a sense of professional inadequacy: however much we try, civil society’s campaigning tools are profoundly outmatched by the scale of the challenges we set ourselves up against. We throw our best energy at the problems but always come up short. We don’t Make Trade Fair, Make Poverty History, or Stop Climate Chaos.

You could – and many do – say that this is a necessary tension that campaigners have to live with – in order to attract attention and support, you must present grand visions of a far better world or stark descriptions of urgent problems that can be solved just as urgently, usually with the simplest and smallest of actions on the part of the supporter – a £5 donation or an email to an MP.

I don’t think that’s either true or honest. Nor do I think it’s healthy in the long run; every time we fail to achieve our soaring ambitions, surely we heap yet more disappointment and disillusionment in the public and our supporters. Exploring frames and values has helped me put some proper academic and empirical understanding to why our current approach is destined to frustrate, and then offers a glimpse of another, more honest, ultimately more fruitful way of doing things. This is why I’ve dived so deeply into this work, and why I find it so rewarding and full of hope.

Orphanages, latrines & soap powder: 7 things we can do to fix the #PovertyDiscourse

A guest blog from Martin Kirk on what’s up with the current poverty discourse.

We know that many people in the UK misunderstand poverty and development: there’s reams of evidence on that. But there are interesting lessons to be had when we look at what it is that they actually think. For example: the idea that Oxfam run orphanages, something that surfaced when Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring recently appeared on an episode of Undercover Boss. While this sort of misplaced belief might seem trivial, it exposes a far bigger problem than a simple case of misinformation.

First, let’s think about why it is that people might hold this belief. I worked for Oxfam for many years, and I never saw anything about orphanages in public communications, so it seems a strange belief to be common. Of all the possible things people could envision, not to mention all the many things Oxfam actually does and talks quite loudly about, why orphanages?

The reason it appears in people’s heads is that it follows logically from their understanding of poverty and of Oxfam.


Martin KirkOrphanages, latrines & soap powder: 7 things we can do to fix the #PovertyDiscourse
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Confessions of an unwise activist

What have values and frames ever done for you? Got under your skin much? Made you rethink some fundamental ideas?  

Well, four years after I first started looking into all this with Tom Crompton and Andrew Darnton, I can say with confidence that they have had a pretty radical effect on my life. Radical being the operative word because the lessons I have learnt by studying these endlessly fascinating ideas and evidence have led to a radicalisation of my politics, made me quit a very comfortable job and hop across the Atlantic to try something a lot less secure and comfortable, and even led me into deeply spiritual territory.

This essay is an attempt to capture and make sense of some of that personal journey;  you might say the human side of what we usually only talk about only in professional terms. What goes on inside the privacy of our minds and hearts is, pretty much by definition, confusing, shocking and difficult to interpret. It’s also, ultimately, everything we have. This is an attempt to bring order to a bit of mine.

Martin KirkConfessions of an unwise activist
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A response to Tony Juniper

There are two questions I would like to put to the proponents of Values Modes or
Cultural Dynamics (CD).

Firstly, is systemic change necessary? In other words: in order to minimise the speed and impact of climate change, do we need to alter any of the fundamental workings of the institutions and machinery of our society so that they, collectively, produce markedly different environmental outcomes? If your answer is no, that things are basically fine and some of the outputs just need tweaking, then we can stop right here as we’ve found the point of real and absolute difference with the Common Cause approach that supersedes everything below. I’d suggest people use this difference to judge which of the two more suits them.

If, however, we do think systemic change is necessary, then that requires us to examine certain facts. Firstly, that the global political economy is built in large part around corporate consumerist values of wealth, status and power. As opposed to, say, beauty, equality or caring for loved ones. Countries must acquire ever more material wealth (or GDP growth); individuals are encouraged hundreds or thousands of times every day to dress in a certain way to be attractive, watch TV to be entertained, look younger, drive better cars, go on foreign holidays, and so on. We must look at the fact that to drive these behaviours, consumers – as we’ve become known – must actually want them; that demand is required. To create demand, peoples’ desire for (that is, the degree to which they value) their own wealth, power and status are commonly appealed to. We must circle back round to the fact that to satisfy the demand that they have spent large budgets and endless amounts of human creativity to stimulate, the vast majority of economic actors – what can credibly be called the bulk of the system – use methods of production and distribution that are directly and significantly implicated in changing the climate. Which brings us irrevocably back round to the intense focus we place on the values that drive this type of economic activity. And finally, we must accept that the intensity and self-perpetuating nature of that focus, must, at some level, be addressed if we are interested in anything but treating symptoms.

Martin KirkA response to Tony Juniper
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Reflections on Campaign Strategy Newsletter 66, November 2010

A response to Chris Rose’s critique of Common Cause. Chris’s views are outlined in his Campaign Strategies Newsletter 66, November 2010. Here are some reflections on this critique (download pdf here):

Let me start by underscoring the high regard in which I, and other members of the Working Group, hold many aspects of Chris Rose’s work. Over the years, this has contributed importantly to shaping the strategies of many third sector campaigns. Indeed, Common Cause underscores the importance of many of his insights. It’s unfortunate that the Newsletter is not more accurate in reflecting, and positive in responding to the arguments that are actually advanced in Common Cause. If it were,we could now be having good and lively debate about our common agenda.

To help us move to such a fruitful place, I set out by trying to highlight some of theseareas of common understanding. I then move to examine those areas where there arereal differences between our respective approaches. These differences can be, and should be, examined in the light of the substantial evidence base from psychology. But Newsletter 66 advances no empirical evidence in support of the position that Chris takes on these points of substantive difference.

Areas of agreement

Time and again, the Newsletter simply misrepresents the approach outlined in Common Cause, and in which there is actually considerable agreement. In particular:

The Newsletter suggests that Common Cause advocates, “that if only we explained the problem more carefully, fully and holistically, and got people to think ethically, they would change their minds and change their wrong behaviours.” But this is completely contrary to the position outlined in Common Cause: the report is clear that explaining a problem is very unlikely to motivate a change in behaviour – because behaviour is rooted in values and worldviews. Indeed, the failure of explanation is one of the report’s keystarting points (Section 1.3).

The Newsletter states that: “Forcing your values upon an audience which doesn’t share them, will only enable them to find more satisfying reasons why you are wrong, and whatever you proposed as an action will then be more deeply framed as ‘wrong’.” Again, I’d completely agree. There is nothing in Common Cause that advocates ‘forcing values on people’. Clearly, such an approach would be doomed to failure.

The Newsletter is right to highlight the dangers of inner-directed people adopting ‘holier than thou’ approaches. The Newsletter suggests that Concerned Ethicals tend to lecture “Prospectors about ‘over consumption’, and the need to lead better, more ethical lives.” I agree that would be deeply counterproductive. The Newsletter’s characterization of the viewpoint outlined in Common Cause is inaccurate. The Newsletter suggests that: “the Common Cause approach would say… instead of getting Settlers from Kansas to cut carbon for their own reasons, we should be trying to convert them to universalist, ethical, holistic thinkers of the sort that you might meet at a Schumacher College seminar or in a Deep Ecology retreat.” Yet any dispassionate reader of Common Cause will see that this is far from what it suggests.

The Newsletter argues that: “even if it were possible, trying to ‘change the values’ of someone who might at some point buy a car, as a way to change the outcomes of car buying… would come way down the list of strategic options for campaign design.” I would totally agree. Clearly, one of the most effective ways to encourage outer directed people to adopt some specific behaviours is likely to be through appeal to social status. Common Cause doesn’t advocate‘changing values’, not least because this would clearly present a silly approach to delivering on a specific campaign objective like selling more electric cars. This is made quite clear in Common Cause (Section 4.6). (Where we differ is on whether or not such approaches are likely to create collateral damage, and whether they are up to the task in hand when it comes to creating the profound systemic changes that are needed – more on this below).

The Newsletter implies that Common Cause argues it will be straightforward for a person to attach importance to intrinsic self-transcendent values, even when his or her basic security needs have still to be met. But the evidence is that to move towards the dispositional expression of the more helpful self-transcendent and intrinsic values is likely to require security needs to be met. Strengthening the dispositional expression of self-transcendent and intrinsic values will be far easier for a person who feels loved and secure?

The Newsletter suggests that “it is infeasible for any campaign group to exert enough influence over existential conditions for any conceivable campaign plan could affect the unmet needs of large audiences (sic).” Common Cause makes an almost identical point (Section 4.4). This is why it calls for new and wide coalitions of organisations. Other work upon which Common Cause draws has explicitly critiqued such approaches – for example the campaign against Urban 4x4s.

The Newsletter highlights the importance of political space, in terms of widespread public support for policy intervention on issues like climatechange. This is right: this is another of the key starting points for Common Cause (see Section 1.2). But most importantly, the Newsletter repeatedly insists that we should ‘start from where other people are’. Common Cause makes clear that this is essential. Indeed, a whole section of the report is devoted to this (Section 4.7). So there are so many important instances where the Newsletter misrepresents the position taken in Common Cause, and then takes issue with this. One unfortunate consequence of this is that the Newsletter tends to obscure the actual areas of difference, and the lack of evidence that the Newsletter advances on these key points.

Areas of disagreement

There are, of course, essential differences between the approach that Chris advocates and the approach outlined in Common Cause. Although sometimes subtle, these differences – which are critically important in terms of their implications for campaign strategy – turn on a large body of empirical evidence from social psychology. It is regrettable that the Newsletter manifestly fails to engage with this large body of evidence.

Most strikingly, there is almost no discussion of the social psychology upon which Common Cause builds its case. This is a shame because the evidence from social psychology will be critically important in settling these areas of dispute. The key area of disagreement is this: The Newsletter advances the case that appealing to social status and consumerist values is the best hope we have of engaging many people in pro-environmental behaviours. The argument advanced in Common Causeis that such appeals risk strengthening a set of values which work absolutely counterto the emergence of humanitarian and environmental concern.

The Newsletter responds to this argument by making two claims: Firstly, it advances the case that appealing to social status and consumerist values helps to ‘satisfy’ particular needs, such that people can then progress to attach importance to other values ‘higher up’ the ‘Maslowian hierarchy’. Secondly, the Newsletter claims that, even if it were the case that appealing to these values risks such counterproductive effects, it wouldn’t matter significantly, because the contribution that third sector campaigns make to people’s values will be miniscule. I will consider each of these claims in turn, but first want to turn to one other key point of difference between the perspective that the Newsletter attempts to defend, and the approach advanced in Common Cause. This is not a difference that the Newsletter highlights.

The Newsletter is right to draw attention to the possibility of roughly grouping people according to which values they hold to be most important. The values modes segmentation is closely aligned to studies of the ways in which a person’s values are structured. Common Cause builds on a related body of evidence from social psychology. But the evidence from a very extensive body of social psychology research makes clear that most people – perhaps everyone – holds all of these values at different levels of importance. It is misleading to imply that people are monolithically ‘outerdirected’or ‘inner-directed’. Indeed, Maslow himself was quite clear on this, arguing that even though a particular person might be mostly oriented towards a particular need, that didn’t mean that other needs (whether higher or lower in the hierarchy) were irrelevant – they simply weren’t as strongly expressed. This is a very important point, and one that it will not be easy to refute on the basis of the current body of social psychology evidence. There is also an impressive body of evidence demonstrating that it is perfectly possible to activate inner-directed values in outer-directed people, and vice-versa. It is this that Common Cause argues communications and campaigns should strive to do. I will now turn to discuss each of the two claims highlighted above.

Claim 1: Appealing to particular needs helps to ‘satisfy’ these needs.

One of the key arguments in Common Cause is that (even though such approaches may work for motivating some small-scale behaviours) there is likely to be collateral damage in promoting helpful behaviours through appeal to extrinsic and self-enhancing values. So, for example, while appeal to social status may work for some specific campaigns (e.g. urging people that jumpers are fashionable, and that they should turn down the heating) it is argued that there are likely to be costs associated with this approach. These costs arise because, as a very extensive body of academic research, reviewed in Common Cause, has found, concerns about social status are likely to serve to undermine systemic concern about social and environmental issues.

The Newsletter advances the response that “once the underlying dominant unmet need is met, a new one takes its place”. It continues: “if prospectors meet that need [theneed for esteem] by getting enough stuff and following sufficient fashion etc. they do not stay Prospectors but develop other needs – ie they become Pioneers.” Here, the Newsletter is advancing the case that the best way to encourage expressionsof values ‘higher’ up the Maslowian hierarchy is to satisfy those values ‘lower’ down the hierarchy. Thus, it suggests, appealing to Now People on the basis of the social status that they may achieve through the acquisition of a socially desirable green product does not risk reinforcing unhelpful extrinsic values. Far from it: it serves to help ‘satisfy’ these values, and therefore leaves people more likely to express more helpful intrinsic values in future. There is a good basis for arguing that basic security needs must be met before ‘higher’ needs are pursued. There is evidence, for example, that children with cold and uncaring parents tend to attach greater importance to more extrinsic values. And it is certainly likely to be the case that people who have not had their basic needs met are unlikely to express self-transcendent values. This would explain the ‘drop back’ of some Pioneers to Settlers in circumstances of recession – something that the Newsletter highlights.

But what is the evidence that, in order for intrinsic and self-transcendent values to be held to be important, people must first become ‘replete’ with consumerism and the pursuit of social status? The Newsletter makes appeal to Maslowian viewpoints here. Yet I am unaware – as is the social psychologist Professor Tim Kasser, who consulted on Common Cause – of any point in Maslow’s writing where he suggested that a satisfactory way of achieving love and esteem needs is through high-status consumption. Indeed the evidence accumulated in the seventy years since Maslow advanced his theory of the hierarchy of needs strongly suggests that this will not be the case. There will, of course, be exceptions, but the evidence is that most people get caught on a hedonic treadmill, in which they find the things that they consume unsatisfying, and consume other things in perpetual pursuit of fulfilment. This evidence is further corroborated by studies which find that achievement at extrinsic goals does not lead,over time, to greater well-being (increases in well-being would be predicted if success at extrinsic goals led to people ‘graduating’ up to ‘higher’ goals that are associatedwith greater well-being).

In short, persuading people to buy more stuff (albeit ‘green’ stuff – jumpers and electric cars, for example) seems very unlikely to provide a route that will encourage many people to place greater value on ‘higher’ Maslowian needs: the intrinsic and self-transcendent values that are known to underpin systemic expressions of concern about environmental and social issues, and that provide the motivation for people to act in line with such concerns. The evidence amassed in Common Cause points to the opposite: the strategies advanced in the Newsletter are likely to diminish the importance people attach to these values, and undermine commitment to addressing social and environmental problems. Unfortunately, the Newsletter largely ignores the extensive body of contemporary social psychology research which directly informs this debate. The Newsletter does draw attention to data suggesting that people can be roughly grouped into three values modes (inner-directed, outer-directed, and sustenance-driven). But such evidence says nothing about the dynamics that lead to changes in the importance that people attach to different values. The one concrete strand of social psychology research that is presented, purportedly in support of the perspective that the Newsletter advances on the role of consumption in encouraging ‘graduation’ to ‘higher’ values, is the evidence from Ron Inglehart and others that there is a growth in ‘post-materialist’ values, at a cultural level, associated with increased economic security.

Ingleharts’ work focuses on a trend from materialism to post-materialism at a cultural level, in many countries. This work points to the apparent importance of economic deprivation during childhood in strengthening materialistic values that persist into adulthood. Inglehart calls this the ‘scarcity hypothesis’. It implies that “prolonged periods of high prosperity will tend to encourage the spread of post-materialistvalues”.

This work has been disputed, with some studies strongly suggesting that the “the zeitgeist of an era rather than the individual’s pre-adult economic circumstances” has greater impact on whether or not a person holds post-materialist values to be important.  But let’s give the benefit of the doubt to the perspective advanced by the Newsletter, and assume that the ‘scarcity hypothesis’ is correct. As the approaches advanced by Common Cause and the Newsletter both agree, it is likely that if you are worried about how you are going to feed your kids, you are unlikely to be preoccupied by climate change. But the Newsletter argues that the acquisition of things that are considered high-status (like jumpers and electric cars) could contribute to a person holding post-materialist values to be more important. So far as I (or Tim Kasser) are aware, this is not something that Inglehart investigates. We are not aware that Inglehart presents any evidence that acquisition of high-status things serves to increase a person’s sense of ‘existential security’, and that this is therefore likely to lead them to place greater emphasis on post-materialist values. Indeed, for the reasons outlined above, it seems highly unlikely that this would be the case. So the Newsletter manifestly fails to refute several strands of evidence that are detailed in Common Cause, and which lead to the conclusion that appeals to social status are very unlikely to help people ‘graduate’ to ‘higher’ concerns.

But enigmatically, and at more than one point, it seems that the Newsletter may bevery close to acknowledging the thrust of the argument advanced in Common Cause. The Newsletter states: “Might for example it be that advertising and product development makes it harder for people to satisfy the need for stuff? Possibly so – and that might be one of a number of reasons why the US is a Prospector dominated society than those in NW Europe (sic).” It also states:“Every time you filled up your car with petrol or diesel you were reinforcing the notion that we need to keep on using this stuff.”

So the Newsletter concedes that consumption of petrol or diesel is likely to reinforce demand for petrol and diesel. This is, of course, to be expected, on the grounds of the evidence presented in Common Cause. Yet the Newsletter argues that consumption of fashionable products – far from reinforcing the notion that fashion is important – will encourage people to ‘graduate’ to more sustainable appetites. Why? What is the important difference here between consumption of fashionable products and consumption of petrol? This is far from clear.

Claim 2: The third sector can have no significant influence on cultural values

The Newsletter claims that, even if the arguments advanced in Common Cause (about the dangers of activating and strengthening unhelpful extrinsic and self-enhancing values – for example, through campaigns such as those of Global Cool) are right, the third sector can simply have no significant influence on cultural values: to imagine that it can is just “wishful thinking”.

I’m happy to accept that Chris and I probably have different levels of ambition, and that we will therefore arrive at different conclusions of what is necessary and possible. But leaving that aside let me look at the precise argument presented. Chris asks whether readers of his Newsletter have been persuaded by the Tea Party movement in the US. “They have been vocal in promoting their values,” he writes.“Did it make you agree with them?” The implication is that because your exposure tothe ideas of the Tea Party movement has probably not led you to embrace their values, then even well-resourced values-based campaigns are futile. This seems a bizarre argument, given the facts that (i) the Tea Party campaign was not, presumably, targeted at the audience for Chris’s Newsletter, and (ii) that the campaign has actually been highly successful in the US. Chris would do well to study George Lakoff’s work on the effectiveness with which the American right has worked to strengthen their core values, such that when something like the Tea Party arrives (and possibly areason for its conception in the first place), it resonates deeply – at a values level -with certain audiences. Lakoff argues that they achieved this by consistently usingframes in their communications and campaigns, and through adopting public policy –when in power – that served to further reinforce a particular set of values.

The Newsletter also is, I feel, both dismissive about the potential of the third sector and insensitive to the current reality. The third sector plays a large role in public discourse and debate. Most of the time, that is at the level of individual organisations, focussing quite naturally on their own campaigns and business needs. In this fractured reality, the Newsletter is quite right – there’s little chance of deliberate and substantial positive impact social values. Which is why Common Cause is called Common Cause, and why we advocate a fundamental coming-together across the third sector, on an agenda potentially beneficial to all. Now if it’s a question of whether a united Third Sector can impact social values, then perhaps Chris and I genuinely disagree – I absolutely think we can. We have within our ranks a host of vibrant, active, nationally and internationally important institutions. Our individual and collective levels of brand recognition and, critically, trust with the public are such that most commercial and political actors would give their eye teeth for. Amazing things have been achieved with far less than we have to work with, so I, for one, am more than willing to put my money on their potential.

Further, as Common Cause spells out, we are already activating and strengthening values, all the time. There’s no such thing as a values-neutral communication, campaign, or policy, and there is good evidence from work we are about to publish on public attitudes to global poverty (Finding New Frames for Development, Darnton &Kirk, 2011), to suggest that the values we currently activate and strengthen with much of our public engagement activity is having an impact; we’re just not conscious of the whys and wherefores which means we can, albeit unconsciously, push in the wrong direction and make the emergence of positive values less likely. So to suggest that weare not already contributing to national values norms is to misunderstand the evidence.

The approaches that the Newsletter outlines are based on marketing techniques. Such techniques undoubtedly work for selling stuff – whether SUVs or electric cars. Because it works to sell things, the values modes approach is deployed commercially to help many of the world’s largest multinationals. If only it were foreseeable that we would be able to address the profound global challenges that we face by sexing-up a range of consumer choices (those jumpers and electric cars) on a case-by-case basis. Alas, this will not be possible. Any proportional response to the profound global challenges that we face (climate change, global poverty, biodiversity loss, and so on) will have to be very ambitious. Any ambitious approach will also, inevitably, be open to the charge of ‘wishful thinking’. I imagine that all great movements for change have been criticised by their erstwhile detractors on precisely this basis.

It seems clear to me that the only pragmatic response to these challenges is one thatoffers the opportunity for systemic and fundamental changes to behavioural choices, public policy, social institutions and business practice across a range of domains. Any approach that fails to offer the prospect of such engagement is just, I fear, wishful thinking. The approach that is outlined in Common Cause begins to offer a response to these challenges that could become proportional to their scale. It seems certain that the emergence of such an approach would need to be led by the third sector, and it is difficult to underestimate what the third sector could achieve, were it to establish common cause on the values that underpin public concern about the issues upon which it works. But, though it may start with the third sector, such a movement for change must include organisations from many other sectors – business, religions, the media, and so on. Our publication of Common Cause is already generating widespread debate within these other sectors – and a great many offers of help.


It is clear that much of Campaign Strategy Newsletter 66 is focussed on critiquing a straw man: attacking arguments that Common Cause does not make. In doing so it distracts from what could be an exciting coming together of learning and ideas. Further, those parts of the Newsletter that do focus on addressing the key areas of divergence between the ‘values modes’ and the Common Cause approaches fail to marshal empirical evidence in their support. In fact, the weight of evidence lies very clearly with Common Cause on these areas of substantive difference.

I am grateful to Tim Kasser, Professor of Psychology at Knox College, Illinois, for his comments on an earlier draft of this response.

This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.

Martin KirkReflections on Campaign Strategy Newsletter 66, November 2010
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21st Century Enlightenment

We’ve just had a bit of an away day marathon here at Oxfam. Among endless other stimulating sessions, we had Matthew Taylor come and talk to us about his project at the RSA, recently given voice in a pamphlet called “21st Century Enlightenment”. In fact, that’s the new strap line for the RSA. Massive overlaps here with our work. Definitely worth reading.

This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.

Martin Kirk21st Century Enlightenment
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