The Mobilisation Lab was born inside Greenpeace International in 2011 amidst a period of radical transformation for the organisation and the wider environmental movement.
Since the first Greenpeace ship sailed into Alaskan waters in 1971 to protest a U.S. nuclear test, its successful campaign tactics have been adopted by nonprofits and activists around the globe—for environmental causes and many others. From a human chain formed by 5,000 activists to save the trees of Bangalore (October 2016), to the “RESIST” banner hung on a crane above the White House (January 2017), the public conscience resonates with the impact of Greenpeace’s leadership in peaceful protest and non-violent direct action.
From its earliest campaigns, Greenpeace demonstrated how local organizing and mass media can combine to change the public debate. Video footage and press coverage have been integral to Greenpeace’s campaigns since its first victories at sea.
But times change. Since the 1990s, the widespread adoption of email, mobile phones and social media has enabled 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.
As the internet evolved—from a new medium, to “2.0,” to the Facebook era—Greenpeace struggled to keep up. And it was hardly alone in that struggle. Legacy non-profits have lagged in the digital revolution, largely because institutions learn everything slowly, from diversity practices to measurement and evaluation.
The crisis that led to the creation of the MobLab began in 2009, when the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference failed to yield a binding treaty despite a massive advocacy campaign led by the world’s major environmental organisations. It was a brutal setback. Greenpeace leadership realised they needed a radical change in approach. International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo called it a “burning platform” moment–a time to embrace a new model for impact or risk becoming irrelevant.
A period of significant change began. Greenpeace 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 program that became the MobLab had a dual focus on increasing digital capacity and promoting community-based, “people-powered” campaigning.
Michael Silberman, a veteran of the early digital revolution in U.S. politics and a long-time strategist for environmental and progressive causes, was hired to lead the MobLab. During the first year, Tracy Frauzel joined as Training Director and senior strategist. Frauzel had previously led Greenpeace U.K.’s renowned digital team. A third teammate, Ben Simon, came to MobLab in 2013 with deep experience in digital advocacy, fundraising and progressive campaigns. MobLab also hired fellows and contracted with a network of experts to provide fresh outside thinking and best-in-class support.
What did MobLab achieve?
Over five years of innovation and experimentation, some of MobLab’s key accomplishments 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.
Our first five years demonstrated that if advocacy organisations want to be successful they must be as creative, collaborative and people-powered as the world in which they now operate. By embracing that reality, Greenpeace made historic progress breaking from the paralyses of bureaucracy and habit.
In early 2017, with the support of a generous transition grant from Greenpeace, MobLab began the process of becoming a fully independent organisation, expanding its mission to serve a wider community of organisations and activists beyond Greenpeace. MobLab is currently incubating this next chapter in a partnership with the CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation. In addition to strategic and financial support, CIVICUS will also provide access to its 4,000+ member alliance in 176 countries, accelerating MobLab’s ability to pilot its model.
This new direction is a natural next step that acknowledges the success of the MobLab initiative and is a tangible demonstration of Greenpeace’s commitment to network-building and collaboration with global civil society. Sharing lessons and resources to build the capacity of progressive campaigners worldwide is a key step toward living the values of Greenpeace’s new long-term strategic framework. Greenpeace staff will also gain the benefit of fresh thinking from other movements and newer allies.Bunny McDiarmid
With a growing community of fellow campaigners and organisational allies, we are building on our successes, opening MobLab’s pioneering combination of strategy innovation, skill-sharing, and thought leadership to groups across the entire social change field.