Archive for August, 2009

This was written as a guest post for Beth Kanter’s blog, exploring how Ashoka is fulfilling our mission on Twitter:

AshokaTweets homepage screenshot

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public is relatively new to Twitter, having launched our main account, @AshokaTweets only in January. However in that time we’ve worked hard to build a community nearing 6,000 connections, sharing our news and stories in new ways and convening conversations that matter. This post will explain how we have approached Twitter and what we have learned.

But first, some back story:

Ashoka was founded on the belief that social entrepreneurs are the most powerful force changing the world. For almost 30 years Ashoka has been seeking out and supporting the best innovators working to create systemic change to join the Ashoka Fellowship. Supporting these visionary leaders, raising the profile of their work and facilitating collaborations and sharing has allowed many to pursue a life of changemaking, scaling their impact and, in many instances, affecting national policy in addition to thousands of members of their communities.

After 29 years of electing over 2,000 incredible social entrepreneurs as Fellows we have been able to observe some powerful themes in their work. And the most significant is this: great social entrepreneurs empower their communities, and invite and inspire those around them to become changemakers themselves.

With this insight we gained a deeper appreciation for the fact that innovation happens at many levels and we saw more clearly the kind of world we were working to create, a world many of our Fellows are leading towards, one in which every person has the opportunity to create positive change in their community, and where our collective intelligence and initiative will allow solutions to outrun the challenges we face. This led to our new tagline and mission, creating an Everyone a Changemaker™ world.

It was this mission that drew me to Ashoka, and which drew Ashoka to me. Building an Everyone a Changemaker™ world is a very different mission from simply looking for the world’s elite social entrepreneurs, it involves using the stories and examples of these entrepreneurs to inspire people to action, sharing lessons learned across our networks and opening up the innovation process to more people. This called for a new approach to outreach and communications and led to me joining Ashoka last year in a new position of Digital Marketing Strategist.

Our recently re-launched Changemakers.com website is to most high-profile example of Ashoka’s new approach to building community and fostering innovation, but so too is the work we are doing in social media and, in particularly Twitter.

The question we asked ourselves when we were planning to launch a Twitter account was: how could we use Twitter to help build an Everyone A Changemaker™ world? In thinking about this question we realized that one of Ashoka’s most important roles as the oldest and largest organization focused on Social Entrepreneurship was as convener, that we have the opportunity to bring together diverse insights and experiences to help map the most effective way forward in tackling many of the world’s most pressing challenges. We wanted to continue to play this role on Twitter.

In addition I felt it was important that we be as human as possible, highlighting not only our Fellows but our staff, and empowering them to be more effective advocates. This was also the chance to share news in a more timely fashion, as well as to proactively reach out and form connections, answer questions, and spark conversations.

Our goals, therefore, where to:

-be timely;

-be human;

-be proactive;


Timely means sharing our news rapidly, as it came in, rather than simply crafting careful news stories for our website at a rate of no more than one a week. It means monitoring the online conversations about social entrepreneurship and issues we care about (we now use M|Buzz from Meltwater to help us do this) and directing attention to news hits and interesting blog posts. It means responding to questions rapidly and directing people to where they can find the information they are looking for.

The goal of being human has led me to run several Introduction to Twitter seminars and webinars for our staff. We currently have over 45 of my colleagues on Twitter where they are sharing their passion for our work and growing our reach and connections exponentially. The next step will be to integrate this onto our website where soon you will be able to see a list and live stream of all our staff on Twitter, along with one for our Fellows. Ashoka does such a diversity of work, from eHealth projects to new social change financing models, it’s impossible for a single person like me to accurately represent it. Now those with the knowledge and passion for these topics can participate themselves, in their own words, in the conversations of relevance to them, bringing new ideas back into the organization and better informing the wider sector on what we’re up to.

Being human also means acknowledging who the person behind an organizational Twitter handle is. The bio of AshokaTweets says “Tweets by @tomjd and friends”.

Being proactive certainly rules out using RSS feeds to populate our Twitter feed (with one exception, set up purely for that purpose and soon to be phased out). Each tweet is hand-crafted and relevant to our audience, something we checked by asking our followers want sort of information they wanted from us in a poll. We also participated in conversations with organizations such as Skoll Foundation, Social Actions and Change.org to agree on some shared hashtags to denote our areas of work, which led to widespread adoption of #socent for Social Entrepreneurship. We also use Twitter to proactively reach out and respond to comments about Ashoka, social entrepreneurship and social change

Finally, in considering how to use Twitter to convene conversations that matter we came up with the ideas of a monthly real-time discussion on Twitter, #SocEntChat, short for Social Entrepreneurship Chat. #SocEntChat takes place on the first Wednesday of every month from 4-6pm US EST (although the recent chat on Rural Innovation in Africa and India was moved to a more Africa and India-friendly time of 12-2 US EST) focused on a specific topic. Recent chats have looked at green entrepreneurship, mobile innovation and building cultures of social entrepreneurship on university campuses. We have had contributors from North America, Asia, Africa, Europe, South America and Australia, representing entrepreneurs, staff from large non-profits, activists, enthusiasts, bloggers and more. Conversations focus on next steps and areas for further exploration. All the transcripts can be accessed from our Squidoo Lense.

The next #SocEntChat is being held on Wednesday September 2 on the topic of Rethinking Mental Health. We would love you to join us.

We still have a lot to learn about Twitter and the microblogging medium will continue to evolve in interesting ways. What is clear is that a platform that allows people to connect with one another and talk about the things they care about is a platform made for social change, a place where we can build constituencies and communities capable of collaboratively creating a better future. In other words, a place for changemakers.

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I was on a panel at a Social Media for Social Good event recently and a question posted was: what are mistakes people make with social media?

I didn’t have any spectacular “misses” to relate, as Ashoka is relatively new to Social Media and progressing carefully, not trying anything too radical that would constitute a “miss”. But thinking about the question I realized that the main misses from social media are not from trying things that go spectacularly wrong but from not trying things at all. The miss is missed opportunity, a squandering of the chance social media provides to speak with your supporters, partners and friends in new ways, collaborate with and involve them to an extent previously impossible.

This echos what was discussed towards the end of the last #4change chat, that most non-profits are not there yet when it comes to social media, a number of barriers from the attitudional to capacity to connectivity standing in the way. I’ve been thinking more about these issues and want to outline further some of the attitudional barriers that were mentioned. I think it’s these attitudinal, or cultural, barriers which are the most interesting. Resource scarcity and skills shortages are always a challenge for non-profits but, ultimately, are simply a matter of prioritization. Connectivity is obviously essential and very unevenly provided across the globe and, once these other elements are in place a coherent strategy is fundamental to your success. But even with everything else lined up unless your organization has a culture which supports social media it will much less effective at it than hoped for.

Several of these attitudinal barriers were mentioned during the #4Change chat: Fear, passivity and a desire for control.


of the unknown, of not doing it right, of missing the mark. Non-profits spend a lot of time worrying about their public perception, and often caring deeply about a wealthier and, often, more conservative cohort (those able to donate substantively to charity and social change) than the population at large. A fear with offending this group can cramp an organization’s style online. You must obviously but mindful of public perception, and be deeply attuned to your brand and values, but social media does requires strategic fearlessness. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll misspell and misspeak occasionally, but learn from these mistakes and get better at social media through practice, it’s the only way.


Passivity is never a recipe for success. While it is possible to automate much of your social media, updating your Twitter feed and Facebook page via RSS when a press release or blog post is uploaded, people can tell when you’re not really present on these platforms and will be much less likely to engage with you. If you’re going to make social media a meaningful part of your outreach strategy you need to give it the time and human resources to succeed. You see this repeatedly in Facebook – seemingly every organization in the Western world has a Facebook group but most are clearly never checked, with questions and offers of help unanswered on their wall, projecting the opposite of what you’d want: disinterest. There’s nothing magic about having a Facebook group, the not-so-secret sauce is in actually using it as a space to share information and engage with people. In other words: being proactive. This is equally true for Twitter, MySpace and other social media platforms.

A desire for control:

Social Media allows your supports and staff to be more effective advocates for you, and nothing is more effective than people talking in their own words about something they care passionately about. But allowing people to talk in their own words risks your marketing becoming diluted, your finely-crafted messaging forgotten. This can’t be helped but can be mitigated by actively engaging with your supporters and providing them with the tools to better promote you. But if you aren’t comfortable with misspelt words and colloquialisms you’re going to find social media, and the real, human, non-pr language that comes with it, very difficult. If you’re running every draft tweet past senior executives for approval you’re not going to get anywhere.

You can see an example of this with copyright. Does your organization use Creative Commons licenses for your online media? If not, how can you expect people to help you share your content and your message?

As Clay Shirky said in his recent TED talk (which I was lucky enough to be present for): social media is about convening your supporters, not controlling them.

Attitudinal factors are only one of the barriers between non-profits and social media success, but they’re an often-overlooked one I believe, less obvious than resourcing issues or inadequate internal processes. I’d love to hear of any others you might have encountered. Being cognizant of these barriers allows us to more effectively lead our organizations through them, creating not only successful social media outreach strategies but more transparent, responsive and adaptive organizations in the process.

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I just hit upload on the first of a new series of eBooks I’ve been working on at Ashoka. I’ve wanted for some time to profile the amazing stories in the Ashoka network in new and shareable ways and eBooks are a fun and stylish way to do that. Using Scribd as our primary platform the document can be embedded and read anywhere, as below, kinda like a YouTube for documents and publications. Ashoka has been getting more social lately but this project is about putting the media in our social media strategy. If we want other people to generate content about us on social media platforms we need to generate more content ourselves, and let people interact with that content.

I hope you enjoy this first attempt and I’d love any feedback you have!

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I’ve been meaning to write a wrap-up of the #4change chat on collaboration for the week since it happened. My apologies for the delay, I’m still getting into the routine of blogging and Burning Man preparation has completely taken over ever available hour outside of work and a necessary minimum of socializing. I’ll tell you all about it before I depart – in a week! Anyway….

Thank you to @lethalsheethal for her excellent and vastly more timely reflection on the chat. Having just discovered it I’d like to recommend www.printyourtwitter.com as creating by far the most digestible (and printable, naturally) twitter transcript (ht @writerpollock).

The topic of the most recent #4change chat was “How does social media open new doors for collaboration?” It was a vibrant and thought-provoking conversation, in my opinion the best #4change chat we’ve had so far.

There is no question that social media has created enormous new collaborative possibilities. Some of these are in the sharing of data, such as the Social Entrepreneurship API being developed by Social Actions and the merging of the North American green business databases of Gen Green (@gengreen) and 3rd Whale (@3rdwhale), which was announced at the start of the chat. This was interesting and welcome news, but business alliances of this type are not uncommon. What, we wondered, where the unique collaborative capacities of social media?

@engagejoe summed up some of these possibilities as “exposing overlap, sharing resources, connecting communities, forging partnerships.” These things are not unique to social media but they are native to it – social media makes overlap and waste more transparent, speeds up information sharing and relationship-building and can increase the impact of collaborations. Messages can be shared between communities and networks both real-time and ad-hoc. And as #4change itself demonstrates conversations can be convened that were never possible before.

But how much of this is happening? And if these possibilities are not being realized what are the barriers standing in the way?

The conversation part seems easiest. It is, by definition, what social media facilitates. Making this conversations intentional, productive and constructive is harder, but we still see examples of this all around us, on forums and wiki’s, blogs and microblogs, communities closed and open. These conversations can create new insights, understanding and relationships. And these conversations can lead to concrete action, from protests to petitions, fundraising to collaborative databases.

There was a real skepticism felt by some in the conversation about whether real work was being done online. This, of course, depends on what real work is to you, but most would agree that hearts and minds are a key part of most forms of social change and so anything that brings us into contact with each other in new ways has the ability to move us in new ways. As Michael Wesch said in his presentation at Personal Democracy Forum this year, “We know ourselves through our relationships with others. New media is creating new ways to relate.”

But to really scale-up the collaborative possibilities of social media we need to empower and lead our organizations to work together in new ways. As @ChristinasWorld said: “if we could get orgs and passionate people to start working together at a sector/issue level things will start to get exciting.” One key challenge to doing this, as @edwardharran pointed out, is that “social media is pocketed in silos.” While we might wish that this wasn’t the case it is simply a fact of human existence that we build groups at all sizes, but that our closest communities are smaller and more digestible, whether on or offline (although the scale of what’s digestible varies widely between these two states). With these distributed, frustratingly uncoordinated conversations also comes enormous space for innovation and creative thinking. However better search, aggregation and distribution is needed to reveal these conversations to each other in ways that support collaboration. We can see steps in this direction with WiserEarth groups showing related groups and Zanby which allows groups to connect while retaining their independence.

A schema began to emerge from the conversation which identified three distinct types of collaboration:

1. organization-to-organization

2. organization-to-individuals

3. individuals-to-individuals.

Again and again the majority of the examples brought up where the later two. For 2. you have organizations like the Sunlight Foundation who are harnessing the contributions of hundreds of coders to create their transparency tools and OneYoungWorld who are using social media to find 1500 leaders of tomorrow. You also have new tools which facilitate this form of collaboration in exciting new ways like The Extraordinaries. For 3. there are grassroots political fundraising campaigns and the entire open source movement.

(4. was also later suggested by @engagejoe: people-within-organizations. Any more?)

For 1. there is the previously-cited Social Actions-style data aggregation and sharing and some great examples of organizations collaborating around a social media-enabled campaign, such as the just-launched climate change campaign tcktcktck (@tcktcktc) but there was a clear feeling that much of this landscape remains to be filled out.

In discussing the barriers to better social media collaboration between non-profits people nominated time intensity vs staffing resources, fear, lack of connectivity in many parts of the world, desire to tightly control their message, geography and time zones and lack of skills as prime candidates. The need for clear strategy so as to not waste precious staff resources was also mentioned, along with the observation that many non-profits do not have the knowledge or experience to develop this strategy.

To close people were asked for their key takeaways from the conversation:

  • “There is a desire to evolve toward more collaborative outputs; SM [social media] may not be enough to get there” – @ChristinasWorld
  • “It’s given me ideas about the barriers NP [non-profits] face with SM” – @chilli07
  • “I think #4change in itself is a great example of international collaboration” – @tashjudd
  • “Main takeaway: a sense of optimism. SM is not going anywhere and collaboration is only going to continue to get bigger and better” – @edwardharran
  • “SM can be chaotic but still work” – @zerostrategist
  • “I now see more kinds of collaboration: people-within-org, org-to-community, community-to-community, org-to-org” – @engagejoe

And if I could be so bold as to end on my own takeaway:

  • “We must learn to collaborate as individuals first, then teach our organizations how.”


Please let us know what topics you’d like to cover in future chats!

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Took me awhile but I finally stuck my Introduction to Twitter for Non-Profits presentation, delivered at a OneWorld.net Workshop recently, up on SlideShare. I hope you find it interesting and useful.

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4change logo

#4Change is a twitter-based real-time conversation about how social media can be used for change. It was an idea which bounced around for a bit before a group of friends and contacts from three countries kicked it off a couple of months ago. Tomorrow will be our third chat.

Rather than introduce the next chat I’m going to use my friend Amy‘s overview for the 4Change group blog, of which I am a part, as I couldn’t possibly do a better job.

The next #4change chat is this Thursday – I hope you can join us!


Starting the Conversations

Unfortunately for me, I will unable to join the chat this Thursday; so, I’d like to offer some conversation starters now to get you thinking of questions, ideas, and stories you want to share!

Here are some questions to consider:

  • has your organization found new collaborators (other organizations, companies, networks, etc.) for your work via social media use/presence?
  • have you reached out, either as an individual or an organization, with opportunities to collaborate to others you only connected with via social media? why?
  • what issues are unique to collaborations of this type?
  • what kind of reassurances (and what are the mechanisms for providing them) are unique to parties entering collaborations via social media?
  • how could collaborations enabled or maintained via social media be more or less sustainable than traditional tools/outlets?

And here are some examples to consider:

  • SocialActions – a great example of social media powering the sharing and aggregation (and thus the collaboration and partnership) of social action opportunity portals all over the world
  • Amnesty International, Red Cross, and others – organizers working globally/locally have changed the way they campaign or operate now that they are really in the same space (online)
  • Journalism – writers are now using their social media platforms (whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, or even the newspaper’s comment-enabled websites) to collaborate with witnesses, locals, and experts for their contributions to the story

Join the Conversation

  1. If you want to contribute to the conversation, you’ll need to have a twitter account (it’s free).
  2. To follow the conversation (whether you are planning to contribute or not), use http://search.twitter.com or another application to search on Twitter for “#4Change”
  3. Jump in to the conversation by adding “#4Change” (without the “”) to your Twitter message

Rules for #Change Chats

  1. #4Change will be structured around a series of questions which all participants can respond to. Send your questions to @tomjd without the hash tag (to keep them out of the stream) to have them considered.
  2. Introduce yourself in 1 tweet at the start or when you join.
  3. Stay on topic!
  4. Stay cool.

Join us for the chat this Thursday – looking forward to discussing the role social media play in collaboration!

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Last night The Day After Tomorrow was on cable. It was one of the spate of big-budget Hollywood disaster porn films which came out in the late-nineties and early noughties which I had not seen before. The disaster in this film is a sudden and catastrophic ice age, triggered by the melting of the Artic and Greeland ice sheets, stopping the North Atlantic Current which keeps most of Europe and North America habitable and which, over the course of just a few days, freezes half the Northern Hemisphere, setting the scene for the heroic “struggle to survive” scenes always featured in movies of this ilk.

So the film is, obviously, a bit over the top, and riddled with scientific inaccuracies as these things always are. But the general premise of government’s refusing to take action on global warming until it’s way, way too late is something that it’s becoming increasingly hard to believe won’t happen. Being in America is filling me with despair about our capacity to respond in time to avoid catastrophe and never more-so than when I saw this poll conducted by the University of Maryland, which asked people in 19 countries to rank on a scale of 1-10 how high a priority their government should place on addressing climate change:

Global Warming Support

Global Warming Support

America stands out as being, of the countries polled, uniquely disinterested in government action to address climate change. And whereas the Iraqi’s and Palestinians justifiably have other things they think their government should be focusing on, in America the blame can only be placed on the presence of a well-funded denialist lobby, replaying exactly the delaying tactics of the tobacco industry. Their goal is not to prove that climate change is not happening, but to sow enough doubt about the science to forstall real action. So far they’ve been extremely successful, especially in the US and, sadly, Australia. The above poll shows just how successful, and what a steep hill we have to climb to get real action here in the world’s greatest carbon emitter, without whom no strategy to address climate change can be successful.

This reminded me of a letter I read years ago, by Paul Gilding, former CEO of Greenpeace International, on the 10th anniversary of the founding of Ecos Corporation, which he has since left. The letter was entitled Scream, Crash, Boom. In it he declared that environmentalists had lost, that despite thirty years of concerted efforts, the development of huge global NGOs and contribution of millions of hours of activism, the chance to avert catastrophic climate change had passed. The forces resisting this change were just too big, or the tactics used had been insufficient, whatever the reason all the shouting for change (the “Scream” of the title) had failed to  move enough people to force the world’s governments to take action. “We tried. We failed. It is what it is.”

Therefore the Crash is coming, where we will see the impact of climate change in very real and terrible ways, whether through a Day After Tomorrow-style snap ice age, pandemic bird flu, peak oil or drought for decades without end (which seems to have already arrived in much of Australia). Millions will be displaced or, potentially, killed. “However it unfolds, it is certainly in my judgement going to be ugly, probably very ugly. You can’t keep messing with the system that feeds you, eating away at your capital without bad stuff happening in response.”

However then would come the “Boom”, the explosion of human ingenuity possible when we are mobilized around an immediate problem.  Humans are unique in our ability to adapt and change, we are just not very good at doing so until we absolutely have to (and sometimes not even then). When we are confronted with problems we experience first-hand, when people start dying (in the Western World) we will respond. “When we do, it’s going to be really interesting. We’ll reinvent cars that make today’s technology look as primitive and stupid as it is. We’ll have energy created everywhere as our roofs and cars become generators rather than consumers of power. Water will just go around and around our houses and we’ll use it on the way through.”

I wish I was as optimistic as Paul. I think the Crash is inevitable, we are doing pitifully little to prevent it, and most Americans think we should be doing little more. Where leadership is needed we instead have denial, obfuscation and confusion. So long as there are dollars to be made. But the Crash is coming, and there are dollars to be made in helping us respond to this challenge as well. So how late will we wait, how bad will it need to be before denial turns into action?

Even if we have lost the opportunity to prevent destruction and displacement there is still so much to fight for, every day we lose to inaction will make the Crash worst, the correction harder, the loss of life greater. Every day is another chance to turn it around, before it is truly too late.

While looking up the link to Paul’s original Scream, Crash, Boom letter from 2005 I discovered he wrote an updated, Scream, Crash, Boom II letter last year, where he claimed that the “Great Disruption” has already begun:

I want to be clear though that this is not the “end of the world”. It does, however herald an unparalleled era of system stress, economic stagnation and social tension – a global emergency during which we’ll evolve a new economic model and then rebuild. I call it The Great Disruption because it is most likely to be a disruption in society’s evolutionary process, rather than the collapse of civilisation.

It’s worth reading in full. And then it’s worth considering what you can do, to change both your lifestyle and the minds of your fellow citizens, to help bring about the change we need.

Related: the Pentagon has begun studying the national security implications of Climate Change, which may require military intervention to “deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics”.

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