During late 2016, I had the opportunity to talk with Greenpeace leaders and activists from six continents about the Mobilisation Lab, a remarkable and remarkably successful effort to spark change from within a long-standing activist institution.

An internal department created to build organizational strength in “people-powered” campaigning and digital skills, the MobLab has inspired me since its founding. Through a combination of storytelling, trust-building, design thinking and rigorous humility, the MobLab team and the Greenpeace leaders supporting them seemed to me to have created a better model for organizational change—especially for digital advocacy—than most of the other initiatives I’ve seen in my 20 years watching non-profits and big brands try to keep up with evolving tools and behaviors.

Thanks to the enthusiastic participation of MobLab leader Michael Silberman, and invaluable collaboration from co-writer Cindy Gibson, the long-form version of what I learned was published in February. You can read the intro below and the full report and key findings on the brand new MobLab website. 

I’ll be posting more notes from the report here. If what we learned prompts questions or comments, please add thoughts here or reach out any time to talk more. Greenpeace is an extraordinary organization and its willingness to refit amid a changing landscape and increasing threats offers inspiration to organizations inside and outside the environmental movement. 

· · · · ·

Late at night on 18 December 2009, in a freezing cold warehouse in Copenhagen, Kumi Naidoo, Executive Director of Greenpeace, stood in front of three hundred exhausted fellow activists struggling to make sense of a bitter defeat.

Hours earlier, on the final day of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, 115 countries had announced no binding treaty, but what the Guardian dismissed as “a weak outline” of an agreement to fight global climate change. Despite the efforts of thousands of activists around the world, the promise of a robust international agreement had been eclipsed by corporate interests and a lack of political will.

It was, in Naidoo’s words, “a colossal failure” for the climate movement. “In the run-up to Copenhagen there had been such hope,” he says, “so we were very down that night. There was a sense of real betrayal.”

Greenpeace protesters during COP15 event in Copenhagen, December 12, 2009 (photo: happy.apple/flickr)
Greenpeace protesters during COP15 conference in Copenhagen, December 12, 2009 (photo: happy.apple/flickr)

Naidoo and his fellow organisers faced the embittered volunteers from around the globe. “Many of them were holding up the same signs they’d held in front of the world leaders earlier that day,” he recalls, “signs that said, ‘Politicians talk. Leaders act.’” The signs had a different meaning that night; politicians were not the only ones being held accountable.

Naidoo, in only his second week at the helm of Greenpeace, knew that the organization was at a pivotal moment. Yesterday’s Greenpeace was not equipped to fight tomorrow’s battles.

Speaking to the crowd, and in the weeks that followed, Naidoo’s message was hopeful, but stark: “We can continue with business as usual,” he said, “do a lot of actions, hold a lot of protests, but fail, and betray our constituency in the process. Or we can press the reset button.”

Since the first Greenpeace ship sailed into Alaskan waters in 1971 to protest a U.S. nuclear test, Greenpeace has been an international powerhouse of peaceful resistance, combining dramatic local actions with high media visibility. And though that first voyage didn’t halt the nuclear test, the high seas story caught fire in the press and inspired massive public attention and grassroots support. Less than six months later, the test program was abandoned.

Greenpeace’s successful campaign tactics have been adopted by nonprofits and activists around the globe—for environmental causes and many others. Today, from the human chain formed by 5,000 protesters last October to save the trees of Bangalore, to the “RESIST” banner hung on a crane above the White House in January, the public conscience resonates with the impact of Greenpeace’s leadership in non-violent direct action.

However, times have changed. Since the 1990s, the widespread adoption of email, mobile phones and social media has unleashed a new kind of campaigning—one that enables a passive audience of individuals to become participants in collective action at historic speed and on their own terms. Movements from MoveOn.org and the Obama campaign to the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter have permanently redefined advocacy, forcing traditional organisations to adapt not just to new tools, but to the democratisation of activism and a new ethos of shared leadership.

Jan Oldfield on building people power

For many organisations, these accelerating changes could have been a death knell. For Greenpeace, they became an opportunity for soul-searching, experimentation and, eventually, a new direction.

Kumi Naidoo called the loss in Copenhagen a “burning platform” moment—a time to embrace a new model for impact, or risk irrelevancy. “Business as usual will not generate the pressure we need to avert catastrophe in our atmosphere, our oceans, our forests, our waterways or on our land,” International Programme Director Pascal Husting wrote in a subsequent report.

Naidoo’s 2010 call to action was the cornerstone of Greenpeace’s new direction: A high-level commitment to put “massively inspiring people” at the center of the mission. Leaders issued a set of principles that emphasised moving people up a “ladder of engagement,” seeing people as campaign partners rather than simply as constituents, and using mass communications and digital platforms as essential tools for campaigning and fundraising.

To help implement these principles, in 2011 Greenpeace established a “Digital Mobilisation Centre of Excellence.” Designed as a source of best practices, testing, and strategy development for a network of over 25 regional offices and 3,000 staff, the centre had a dual focus on increasing digital capacity and promoting community-based, “people-powered” campaigning.

The centre, renamed the Mobilisation Lab (or “MobLab”) after its 2012 launch, has grown into a definitive resource for innovation, training and capacity development. It has played a critical role in Greenpeace’s shift to a new way of operating at all levels—programmatically, administratively and strategically.

MobLab has pushed Greenpeace into greater comfort seeking and testing new approaches without fear of failure. Key outcomes after MobLab’s first five years include:

Design and testing of new campaign models that have been integrated into nearly all Greenpeace offices to drive advocacy in at least 55 countries. Central to these new approaches is Greenpeace’s work to become a “learning organisation”—one that seeks meaningful participation from the people it serves; maintains a posture of listening, not telling; emphasises an openness to innovation and diversity; and values the needs and local wisdom of Greenpeace allies as much as—if not more than—prominent experts or senior-level staff.

All planning efforts, for example, must now include concrete outlines for how campaigns will engage regular people as partners in advocacy, and not only as followers or audience members.

Deepening appreciation and understanding for the role of technology in 21st century advocacy through training and direct support to more than 1,100 staff. MobLab provided colleagues across the Greenpeace network with information and training in new digital platforms such as video, social media, and email, enhancing their ability to recruit and mobilise supporters using people-powered approaches, as well as to analyse and evaluate the impact of these campaigns.

Galvanising a community of peer learning across Greenpeace—and the wider advocacy community—through a program of dynamic annual gatherings. Through skills-sharing events that involved hundreds of Greenpeace campaigners, leaders and staff, as well as practitioners from peer organisations, MobLab has helped build an international learning community whose members have opportunities to learn from and forge relationships with one another.

Making a successful case for adding—and elevating—positions with expertise in digital advocacy and supporter engagement to senior-level positions across the entire Greenpeace network. In 2011, there were few if any such senior-level staff members. Now a majority of Greenpeace offices have created mobilisation and engagement positions at the senior level, with titles new to Greenpeace, like Chief Engagement Officer and Director of Participation.

Spurring the creation of Greenpeace’s first–ever Global Engagement Department, a fully-staffed team charged with supporting recruitment, mobilisation, and engagement capacity across the entire organisation and providing assistance to staff at all levels to ensure the continued integration of communications, fundraising, volunteering, and technology as a unified approach.

In the years since that burning platform moment, Greenpeace has repositioned itself as an organisation that seeks to put people-powered campaigning at the centre of its work. MobLab has played the central role in Greenpeace’s transition and provides an instructive model for any legacy organisation seeking to fully embrace 21st century advocacy.

To dig deeper into MobLab’s evolution and impact, Greenpeace asked two longtime experts in NGO adaptation and innovation—Jed Miller and Cynthia Gibson—to conduct interviews and analysis with more than 20 international and regional directors, program managers, and campaign leads, as well as with MobLab staff and several external activists and leaders.

Combined, this group’s experience spans more than a dozen Greenpeace offices and at least three decades of history. The authors’ review also included planning documents, reports and other materials that document how MobLab started, the progress and adoption of its approaches within Greenpeace, and the increasing number of advocacy organisations seeking to adapt the model for their own efforts.

MobLab showed Greenpeace that the people are not just audiences to our work, they are as relevant as any other stakeholder in the process, as relevant as politicians. Mobilisation isn’t something you add at the end of your planning as “an activity.” It’s at the heart of the process.

— Araceli Segura, Head of Engagement Support, former Volunteering Lab Director, Greenpeace

Kayak photo with blurb: Backbone Campaign/flickr

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