Creating change with, not for, people

by Michael Silberman, Global Director of the Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace, with an introduction by Karenina Schröder of the INGO Accountability Charter

This blog was first published on Feedback Labs with the support of Feedback Labs’ Collaboration Fund.


With the arrival of digital players like Facebook, Airbnb or Wikipedia, people’s expectation of how to engage with institutions has fundamentally changed. No longer are they content to just receive the occasional report or letter to be informed after things have already happened. Today’s expectation is rather to: engage directly, through extremely user friendly interfaces; see information in real time; and take an active part in co-creating activities and products.

This new interaction paradigm between people and organisations has also fundamentally changed the way stakeholders relate to civil society organisations (CSOs). People become co-creators of CSO activities; they share part of the accountability for collective outcomes; constant feedback and collaboration are essential for this new relationship to thrive.

The Digital Accountability project, initiated by the INGO Accountability Charter, investigated this new relationship of CSOs and the people they work with. In spring this year  a group of young CSO representatives developed a new paradigm for CSO accountability in the digital age with six key principles to underpin the new relationship of CSOs and people they work with.

In the following blog post  Michael Silberman, Global Director of the Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace provides some insights how this applies to the fundamentally new way in which Greenpeace works with and not for stakeholders.



Technology is transforming people’s expectations of institutions — putting individuals on a more level playing field not only with businesses and media, but also with social change organisations. As Greenpeace adapts to this rapidly changing landscape, three principles of the new accountability paradigm are particularly relevant to us:

(1) “Greater transparency: in-time & on-demand – way beyond the annual report.”

Greenpeace is in the midst of a massive organisational evolution — making seven key shifts that make us more fit-for-purpose in today’s world. One of these shifts is about moving from secretive by default to open by default. “The better world we work for is open and transparent. Our default value should be sunlight.” There’s an implicit acknowledgement here that we can only win at the scale of the challenges we’re facing if we engage more people in the fight — through greater collaboration and participation.

The Detox Outdoors campaign models these open principles in several ways: First, the team shared its overall strategy and “theory of change” with key audiences like the outdoor sports/recreation communities and then invited collaboration and co-creation to develop and rank campaign ideas as well as prioritise targets. “We are not just asking you to sign petitions (act),” the campaign page says, “but also invite you to get involved in every stage of our campaign and build it together with us.”

The campaign team also released two years of chemical research in hopes that it’s useful to other change-makers and a broader movement. It’s the first dataset in our open data project and is hopefully just the start of Greenpeace and similar organisations making our research open whenever possible rather than secret by default.

Despite our progress, this shift won’t come without challenges. As authoritarian regimes — and even some democracies — increasingly seek to limit free speech and democratic space, civil society organizations like Greenpeace are being forced to weigh the obvious benefits of transparency (more people power contributing skills or resources) against the risks (serious crackdowns) and be increasingly judicious. Documenting or publicly communicating plans for peaceful protests, for example, can not only lead to foiled plans but also dire consequences for activists ranging from arrest to torture or death.

(2) “Focus on increasing the quality — not just the quantity — of our relationships with people and partners, using empowerment or network-building as a success indicator in and of itself.”

There is an inherent danger that people-centric strategies, to initiate one billion acts of courage to defend the climate, for example, focus on the quantity rather than the quality of relationships. But it is the quality of relationships that will bring about sustainable change.

Greenpeace is among the world’s largest campaigning organisations, so I’m surrounded by campaigners and strategists. Campaigners have a knack for zeroing in on one question: “what does it take to win?” Increasingly the answer to that question involves many people taking action in specific ways to apply pressure, build public awareness, organise others, etc. (see 10 Ways People Power Can Change the World). In other words, Greenpeace (or any organisation) acting alone is rarely sufficient to achieve lasting change at the scale of the challenges we face.

This commitment to achieving impact or getting results helps us avoid becoming distracted by sheer quantity or big numbers alone, but we’re not immune from “vanity metrics.” Our Beyond Vanity Metricsreport continues to influence conversations about how campaigns measure progress, learn what works and evolve their strategies.

The danger, of course, is that as campaigners we’re also often drawn to tactics that may not involve people at all — hacks that might lead us to a fast “win” but without engaging people in the process. Sometimes these shortcuts are strategic, and they do make sense from time to time, but unfortunately the costs are not immediately visible: diminished long term community power or organizational strength.

So when we talk about supporter or people power at Greenpeace today, we’re increasingly mentioning “breadth” and “depth” in the same sentence — an explicit acknowledgement that a big list of email addresses or social media followers isn’t sufficient to achieve change at the scale of the challenges we face.

Tools like the Engagement Pyramid challenge us to examine our relationships with people: are we talking with people in ways that are consistent with their level of commitment, and inviting them to participate (or lead) at their highest potential?

(3) “A smart risk management approach that allows civil society organisations to let go of control and invites others to assume ownership over the common cause – while preserving the organisation’s integrity.”

Greenpeace has a long history of taking risks. Our high visibility actions and creative confrontations, or “non-violent direct action” (NVDA), are among the first things a Greenpeacer likely thinks of when you mention “risk”. They’re part of our organisational DNA. The actions you see on social media or in the news may appear spontaneous, but they’re typically planned for weeks or months in order to manage risk for activists and the organization in a conscious and proactive way. Direct action at Greenpeace is typically run by small, experienced teams that embrace secrecy to protect participant safety, prevent interference and maximize impact.

But now we’re recognizing that in today’s landscape, more people than ever are not only connected to social change efforts but they’re equipped and prepared to act themselves. I’m proud to have been part of a recent organization-wide exploration into how Greenpeace can “open up” the powerful and important practice of NVDA to enable both greater participation and greater impact:#

Mass NVDA is designed and intended to be accessible and inclusive for a range of participants as diverse as possible, even those with no or limited experience in NVDA. In that sense, ‘mass’ can refer to a large number of people joining a specific activity, but it can also refer to a smaller activity with a very diverse range of participants that is not historically common with Greenpeace actions.

Here’s a great example of Greenpeace New Zealand using this more open, highly networked approach to NVDA just a few months ago. My colleague Jeff Harrison explains, “If your strategy is good enough you can let everyone know what it is because nobody will be able to stop you.” By opening up direct actions, we create more opportunities for people to initiate and carry out events they care about. These actions are not only stronger but also have the potential to engage many more people than traditional direct actions.

A key resource we’ve found for organisations working to consider their current “risk appetite” is Fail Forward. I’m an especially big fan of their Risk Sandbox as a tool for exploring how and where organizations can foster innovation and facilitate risk-taking to scale their missions.

Greenpeace is moving fast from an organisation that produced campaigns and actions with relatively few and highly trained people to one that co-creates campaigns and supporting actions of millions of people who share our vision. This has fundamentally changed the way we relate to the people with whom we work. The concept and practice of CSO accountability in the digital age which we developed further supports this relationship to thrive.

CSO Action Guides

Learn how to engage people for greater collective impact as Board Member, Strategy Director, CEO, COO, Campaign and Programme Director & HR Director in our six CSO Action Guides

"These one-pagers are concise but packed with the kind of tangible information for which we are hearing increasing demand. I particularly like how each one-pager ends with specific questions to elicit what people and partners think."

Megan P. Campbell, Research and Learning Manager, Feedback Labs
Read more:

The Outcome Report on the New Accountability Paradigm

Blog for Feedback Labs by Michael Silberman on Creating Change with, not for, People

Blog for Feedback Labs titled: Citizen engagement: What can we learn from digital campaigns organisations?

A synthesis of a survey that we undertook with the Working Group in 2015.