Lab History & Design


The Network Leadership Innovation Lab, our first iteration of MAGLab, grew from a realization that, 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 born of a paradox: many nonprofit social justice organizations are stronger than ever, yet the systemic changes they seek—and fundamental improvements in the lives of their constituencies—are more elusive.

Organizations often work in isolation, competing for resources and visibility. Yet leaders understand that no one organization is strong enough to realize transformative social change. To reach scale and to innovate around intractable issues, we need movement networks.  

At the same time, progressive movements tend to function as silos, though the issues they address—like poverty, human rights, immigration, a fair economy, democracy reform, racism, and health—are profoundly interconnected. The fragmentation of these issues does not reflect how people are experiencing them in their lives. These artificial, though sometimes useful, separations undercut activists’ ability to build political power.

More and more we see social justice leaders and organizations 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. Movement network leaders sought to learn with others about how to address these challenges.


Phase One: Design & Co-Creation

To learn more about the challenges presented by working in movement networks, and how we might deepen our understanding of promising practices, we began with a learning and design phase. To better understand the network terrain, we immersed ourselves in a growing body of thought about navigating complex systems.  We drew on the extensive experience of MAG team members and engaged in dialogues on this topic with more than 70 social change practitioners, funders, and thought leaders many of whom became Network Leadership Innovation Lab advisors.

design team including seven movement network leaders, who are also executive directors of organizations, along with MAG staff, began to shape a program that the leaders would want to take part in. This process reflects our commitment to developing the Lab through a process of “co-creation.” As a result, the Network Leadership Innovation Lab emerged as a living experiment in action learning with three goals. It is also a space where leaders embody the values and principles that drew them to justice work and keep them connected—forging bonds of trust and shared understanding that transcend many divides.

Design Team Members:   Vincent Pan,   Chinese for Affirmative Action  ,   Eveline Shen,   Forward Together  , Gustavo Torres,   Casa de Maryland  ,   Kierra Johnson,   Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE)  , Rea Carey,   National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce  ,   and   Sarita Gupta,  Jobs with Justice .   Not pictured: Tracy Sturdivant, formerly of   State Voices   (former Lab Participant/Design Team Member).

Design Team Members: Vincent Pan, Chinese for Affirmative ActionEveline Shen, Forward Together, Gustavo Torres, Casa de MarylandKierra Johnson, Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE), Rea Carey, National Gay & Lesbian Taskforceand Sarita Gupta, Jobs with JusticeNot pictured: Tracy Sturdivant, formerly of State Voices (former Lab Participant/Design Team Member).

Phase Two: Participatory Action Learning

The design team expanded the participant group beyond the original team to include other organizations as well as a second key leader from each organization for a total of eight organizations and sixteen participants

This larger group participated in this second phase of the Lab, which included the following elements:

Learning Sessions

MAG facilitated and co-designed learning sessions to draw out learning and spark network growth and innovation.

Action Learning Projects

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. These projects included:

Lab Participants building a mindmap at the first lab convening. 

Lab Participants building a mindmap at the first lab convening. 

  • Resource Generation - Chinese for Affirmative Action, Forward Together, and Jobs With Justice: Moving beyond a critique of the funding system to holding funders accountable and experimenting with new ways of funding our work. 
  • Expanding to Adult De-Incarceration - Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana: Advancing de-incarceration work at a statewide level and exploring the key question of how to balance an individual organization’s needs with the needs of the network relative to mission alignment and resources. 
  • LGBTQ & Reproductive Justice Movements Connect: URGE and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: Creating space for a new collaborative movement and investing in key leaders to build relationships and find more opportunities to partner effectively for shared social change outcomes.
  • Leadership Academy - CASA de Maryland: Strategically building leaders in the Latino and immigrant communities as well as connecting them to other progressive movements so that there will be a strong voice where there is little Latino and immigrant representation. 
  • Disaster Response - Using the network-building process and a mobilization in New York City to test new ways to scale up organizing across movements and networks in climate disaster communities.

Coaching and Learning Supports

Individual and peer coaching was provided to encourage reflection and learning and provide supports such as connections to advisors and other external resources. 

Case Studies and Articles Exploring Key Topics

MAG published, disseminated, and presented emergent learning including three case stories, blog posts, articles, webinars, and hosted discussions addressing key topics identified by participants. 

“Just in Time” Learning

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. We got good at “just in time” learning, offering up tastes of theories and frameworks that might be useful, seeing what stuck, and then going deeper. 

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, Deputy Director, Forward Together

Phase Three: Sharing & Deepening the Learning

The third and final phase of the Network Leadership Innovation Lab is focused on sharing and deepening the learning to both increase capacity for people and organizations to work in this way, and to influence the social change field. We conducted webinars, presented at funder conferences, and continue to write about our learnings on and offline. Please check out the Network Leadership Innovation Lab's Evaluation, which details our learnings. 


Lab 2.0: Next Steps

Lab 2.0 is an exciting and open prospect! There are several ideas and possibilities percolating that we are exploring and considering. In the meantime, we continue to explore the implications of networked ways of working on boards, staff teams, and funding relationships. Stay tuned for more!

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, Executive Director, URGE (formerly CHOICE USA)