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Photo of Lab participants at the final convening

The Network Leadership Innovation Lab grew from a realization that social justice leaders and organizations are increasingly building movement networks that enable them to increase power over time and attain long-term systemic change on levels that no organization alone could achieve and sustain. This approach can be transformational, but it also presents distinct challenges. Moreover, while there are many supports available to strengthen leaders and organizations, few—if any—help those same leaders engage with the larger ecosystem of movements and networks.

The lab was an opportunity for leaders to learn with and from each other about common challenges and promising practices of working at the nexus of movement networks and organizations. It was a program of dialogue, analysis, partnership, co-creation and active learning among funders, capacity-builders, and other thinkers and doers.

Over the course of 18 months from 2013-2014, sixteen social justice leaders from eight organizations got together to build relationships, learn, and experiment together.

Network Leadership Innovation Lab Goals

To increase the impact and scale of social justice efforts movement wide, we are:

  1. Creating a vibrant space and supports that allow network leaders to learn from and inspire each other, and to innovate in their work.
  2. Deepening our shared understanding of:
    1. How the current ecosystem (both internal capacities and external conditions) enables or inhibits leaders to work successfully in networks; and
    2. What it takes for social justice leaders to work successfully in networks (that link across organizations, issue silos, or sectors) and to step into effective network leadership.
  3. Moving this deep understanding out into the world and engaging other social justice leaders, practitioners and funders in ways that produce a more favorable set of conditions to support effective networked leadership in the future.

Design and Phases

Phase One: Design & Co-Creation

Photo credit: Mark Leach
The Network Leadership Innovation Lab Design Team.

In 2012, a design team including seven movement network leaders, who are also executive directors of organizations, along with Management Assistance Group (MAG; now Change Elemental) staff, began to shape a program that the leaders would want to take part in. During this design phase, we engaged in dialogues about network leadership practices with more than seventy social change practitioners, funders, and thought leaders, many of whom became lab advisors. We also immersed ourselves in a growing body of thought about advancing complex systems change.

The collective wisdom and leadership and expertise that are present in the room enables us move to a level of conversation quite quickly that is unlike most experiences.

Moira Bowman, Forward Together

Phase Two: Participatory Action Learning

Jolon McNeil, Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.

The principle of co-creation continued to live throughout this phase of the Network Leadership Innovation Lab with participants actively engaged in the identification of learning priorities, the development of agendas for our in-person time together, and the synthesis of meaning that occurred during our reflection. The core activities of the lab included:

  • Our staff facilitated and co-designed three learning sessions with the sixteen lab participants to draw out learning and spark network growth and innovation.
  • Participants designed their own action learning projects to take their existing network efforts to a higher level or seed new innovations. The lab provided some core funding to support the projects.
  • Individual and peer coaching was provided to encourage reflection and learning and provide supports, such as connections to advisors and other external resources.
  • We published, disseminated, and presented emergent learning, including three case stories, blog posts, articles, webinars, and hosted discussions addressing key topics identified by participants.

Phase Three: Sharing & Deepening the Learning

Network Leadership Innovation Lab participants at the final convening.

Please check out the Network Leadership Innovation Lab’s Evaluation for more information on the lab’s design, the action learning projects, and shared learnings.

Many of the lab’s participants continue to be engaged in ongoing learning and dialogue with Change Elemental, including co-creating articles to lift up emergent learning on leadership and other topics, and participating in other networks of shared practice and learning with us such as the NorthStar Network.

Our wins and our losses and our values and our ability to succeed are tied up into one another. I think the only way we can succeed is if we think intentionally and strategically about how we grow as network leaders and networked organizations.

Kierra Johnson, URGE


Network Leadership Innovation Lab Participants

Photo credit: Natasha Winegar
Network Leadership Innovation Lab participants at the second convening.

Affiliations as of 2013 during the second phase of the lab.

*Design team members.

  • Phil Aroneau,
  • May Boeve,
  • Moira Bowman, Forward Together
  • Eveline Shen,* Forward Together
  • Rea Carey,* National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce
  • Darlene Nipper, National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce
  • Sarita Gupta,* Jobs With Justice
  • Erica Smiley, Jobs With Justice
  • Kierra Johnson,* Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE)
  • Mari Schimmer, Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE)
  • Dana Kaplan, Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights
  • Jolon McNeil, Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights
  • Virginia Kase, Casa de Maryland
  • Gustavo Torres,* Casa de Maryland
  • Jenny Lam, Chinese for Affirmative Action
  • Vincent Pan,* Chinese for Affirmative Action
  • Cietta Kiandoli, State Voices (participant through part of phase two convening)
  • Tracy Sturdivant,* State Voices (participant through part of phase two convening)

Lab Staff

  • Robin Katcher
  • Mark Leach
  • Elissa Sloan Perry
  • Natasha Winegar

Advisory Team

Affiliations as of 2012 during the design phase of the lab.

  • Kenneth Bailey, Design Studio for Social Innovation
  • Michael Bell, InPartnership
  • Liz Butler, Movement Strategy Center
  • L. David Brown, formerly of the Hauser Institute, Harvard University
  • adrienne maree brown, Consultant
  • Cynthia Chavez, LeaderSpring
  • Catherine Fitzgerald, Coach
  • Allison Fine, Author and Speaker
  • Jennifer Garvey Berger, Cultivating Leadership
  • Michelle Gislason, CompasPpoint
  • Kent Glenzer, Monterey Institute for International Studies
  • June Holley, Network Weaver
  • Taj James, Movement Strategy Center
  • Keith Johnston, Cultivating Leadership
  • Stacy Kono, Rockwood Leadership Institute
  • Jidan Koon, Movement Strategy Center
  • Frances Kunreuther, Building Movement Project
  • Barbara Masters, Consultant
  • Stephanie McAuliffe, formerly Packard Foundation
  • Linda Nguyen, Alliance for Children and Families, former MAG Board Member
  • Gita Gulati Partee, OpenSource Leadership
  • Heather Peeler, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
  • Sheryl Petty, Consultant
  • john powell, Kirwan Institute and University of California, Berkley
  • Claire Reinelt, Leadership Learning Community
  • Gibrán Rivera, Interaction Institute for Social Change
  • Shira Saperstein, The Moriah Fund, former MAG Board Member
  • Geno Schnell, Schnell Management Consulting
  • Mikaela Seligman, Independent Sector
  • Marissa Tirona, Compasspoint
  • Jodie Tonita, Social Transformation Project
  • Jane Wei-Skillern, University of California, Berkley and Stanford University