Michael Silberman

Global Director

This is a difficult update to share, and something I never would have imagined writing: Mobilisation Lab as a nonprofit is dissolving.

But MobLab as a mission, approach, and network has become much more expansive than a single organisational entity. The wide constellation of practices and resources that staff, facilitators, partners, and allies have built together over the last decade is inextinguishable.

In this post, I share historical context, my perspective of what brought us to this point, and initial plans for how you’ll be able to access MobLab trainers and build upon MobLab’s signature insights, curricula, and tools moving forward — including, I hope, in new ways that have yet to be imagined.

Incubation years gave us running room

We were born as an experiment inside Greenpeace to see if a small, independent team could help one of the world’s largest campaigning organisations re-imagine its approach to driving change in a radically more complex, networked, people-powered world.

After more than five years building capacity and supporting massive shifts in how Greenpeace designs and runs campaigns, we saw growing interest from other organisations in our peer-learning events, campaign design methodologies, as well as our growing bank of resources, tools, and case studies.

Given this need and desire for broader impact, with Greenpeace seed funding and other support, we decided to build an independent “MobLab for the Movement” in order to serve social justice campaigners and their organisations around the world. As an embryonic organisation-to-be, we sought the support of a larger group to help us with critical operating infrastructure, support, and additional seed funding.

Fortunately, in early 2017, CIVICUS, the global alliance of civil society organisations, offered MobLab a home and the general operating financial support we needed to test and validate hypotheses about our sector’s needs, build out programmes and services consistent with our values, and explore financial models.

In mid 2019, we began laying the groundwork for a new organisation that would place equity and justice at the center of how we think about campaigning as well as how we operate and engage with others across our sector. In tandem, we put a major emphasis on establishing a sustainable financial model for our fee-for-service approach to campaign design workshops and coaching—to reduce our dependence on philanthropic grants. This model was both aspirational and experimental: We knew it would be challenging to minimize our reliance on charitable grants while still delivering the highest caliber of service along with the same breadth of freely accessible programmes, like convenings and knowledge-sharing and have historically been underfunded. But, we knew we had to try.

As 2020 began, we were well into the process of spinning out from CIVICUS and forming a fully independent organisation. In May of this year, we incorporated MobLab as a nonprofit under US law and started the process of transferring our activities into this independent body.

The decision to close came suddenly

In the process of this transition, those of us managing MobLab’s financial back-end had a fatal miscommunication about the way MobLab’s income and expenses were being accounted for and reported. In June, the consequence of this disconnect quickly became clear: an unnavigable hole in our cash flow. Three months of operating revenue that we projected and counted on was not actually on the books. We relied on this cash cushion to afford us the space and time to refine our experimental model.

We looked at every way to turn the situation around, from emergency funding to cutting expenses. But time was against us: our cash on hand simply wasn’t enough to keep the organisation and the team going in any sustainable way — especially in challenging times like these, with grantmaking strategies shifting, organisational budgets getting halved, and in-person experiences, which had been our bread and butter, at a standstill. It was a perfect storm for a tiny organisation trying to do something bold and complicated in a field that is already difficult to resource.

In late July, we made the difficult decision to begin the process of closing down MobLab.

For staff, facilitators, and close colleagues who poured their heart and soul into shaping MobLab over the years, this news came as a shock. We’ve had to say a painful goodbye to staff, and it’s been an immensely challenging time for our facilitators and coaches who represent MobLab’s methodologies, values, and curriculum in the world.

What now? 

I take some comfort in knowing we made decisions in the early days of MobLab that should pay off now and into the future to ensure MobLab continues to be of service to changemakers everywhere:

  1. We built a global network of trainers and coaches, rather than a large in-house staff, who stand ready to take forward MobLab’s campaign design labs, curriculum, and coaching. Since MobLab is not taking on any new projects, we are proud to refer work to MobLab’s talented facilitators, who have shaped and strengthened MobLab’s curriculum over several years and through hundreds of trainings and workshops. You can reach  them here: facilitators@mobilisationlab.org
  2. When we first started sharing stories and reports on “what works” in campaigning and curating resources nearly 10 years ago, we made a point to publish everything under a Creative Commons license. This open alternative to copyright ensures that the MobLab network—as well as people we’ve not yet met—can access, use, and evolve this body of work to advance their campaign strategies, tactics, and skills as they see fit. We remain committed to ensuring MobLab’s resources remain available under Creative Commons.

Finally, I know I won’t be the only one disappointed not to open another Dispatch newsletter for the foreseeable future, but you can still access the full Dispatch archive here.

What next? 

It’s clear there’s still strong demand for MobLab’s core offerings. To that end, I foresee a series of conversations over the coming months to envision new futures for MobLab, so that nearly ten years of resources, tools, curriculum, and pedagogy can continue to serve and help strengthen a sector that I deeply believe still needs support.

I am thrilled to share that I’ve already heard serious interest from members of the MobLab community to continue delivering the training, coaching, and facilitation services that so many changemakers have come to rely upon—not to mention giving voice to ideas and approaches that lovingly challenge the status quo of nonprofit campaigning and advocacy.

At the end of this process, I will be transitioning out of my leadership role and look forward to joining the broad network of individuals and organisations that look to MobLab for guidance and inspiration on building strategic, participatory, creative (and, ultimately, more powerful) campaigns for social and environmental justice.

My role

This decision to shut down and the process to do so has been anything but easy, even with the help of pro bono financial, legal, and nonprofit advisors. As MobLab’s founder and leader, I am ultimately responsible for the organisation—including how we handled June’s shocking financial discovery and the excruciating journey for our team that followed. Nevertheless, this was the first time I’ve navigated a fast-moving organisational crisis of this scale, and I believed I needed to move quickly to mitigate even worse outcomes.

My hindsight is only beginning to come into focus, but I can already see that I moved hastily in moments where a more inclusive problem-solving approach could have better upheld our values and better engaged the diversity of talents and perspectives among our extended team. At other times, I moved too slowly. I am sorry that the past few months have caused serious distress for some in our community, during an already uncertain and difficult time.

Your role

We often invite colleagues to close workshops and convenings with appreciations. MobLab’s lifeblood these past 3.5 years has been the dozens of advocacy and campaigning organisations around the world that truly invested in MobLab—from sending staff to attend trainings and events, to inviting MobLab in to workshop more powerful, creative, people-centred, and, more recently, justice-centred, campaigns with your teams. We have realized our greatest impact working with you, the changemakers amongst changemaking organisations.

Over 8,000 campaigners and leaders have been part of this journey, shaping MobLab into what it’s become – by bringing your voice and experiences to skill-sharing events and online sessions; passing along Dispatch newsletters and stories to colleagues; contributing to networked research projects like “Measuring People Power”; and generously sharing links or job postings for the benefit of the entire network. Thank you!

By the end of this post, I hope it’s now clear why we are so deeply grateful to three institutions that, through their general operating grants, enabled MobLab to serve and strengthen a global network of social change campaigners while we sought ways to center principles of justice and equity in our own work. Thank you Greenpeace, CIVICUS, and Open Society Foundations.

 

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MobLab updates

Michael Silberman

Michael Silberman is a senior campaigns strategist with more than a decade of experience guiding social change organisations to achieve greater impact through the creative use of participatory strategies and technologies.