How to Move from Vision to Action

My coaching work begins with a client consultation that moves from vision to practical next steps, often in as little as an hour.  How does that work exactly?

Here are the steps:

1: Clarify Your Vision

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.14.41 PMIf you are a social change visionary, you have a picture of a more just, equitable, sustainable, and compassionate future that you want to create.  Your vision is your personal motivation to go out and change the world.  It is also a north star that guides you in the later steps of the process.

Your vision is the picture of the future that stokes an enduring fire in your heart.

If you are unsure of your vision, try these steps to clarify it.

2: Map a Path from Your Vision to Now

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.14.46 PMThe next step is to design a path that links your vision to now.  This roadmap is a series of causally-linked outcomes called a theory of change.

Your roadmap will not be set it stone.  It will change as your implement it.  Its purpose is to show you that your vision is possible.

To create the roadmap we’ll start with your vision and work backwards, moving through a series of causally outcomes until we get to the present.  That first outcome – the one right after now – becomes the first goal you’ll take action to achieve.

If this sounds confusing, don’t worry.  Believe it or not, you probably already know all the elements of your theory of change.  You just need to think about how they are connected.  Think of theory of change as a story about how your vision might happen.

To start, try to tell that story in five steps.  What will happen right before your vision is realized?  And before that? And before that?  Keep on asking that question until you get to now.

3: Act, Reflect, Repeat

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.14.51 PMNow you have a goal to work towards, so you can make a plan of action to achieve it.  But it won’t be a complex or longterm plan.

In the ten years that I’ve been working with change-makers, I’ve learned that making longterm plans is often a waste of time.  There is a lot we still don’t know.

For this reason, I take a page from Lean Startup strategy and focus on identifying short-term actions that maximize learning.

First identity actions you’ll take within the next week.  Then, at the end of the week, reflect on the results of those actions.  Did you get the result you wanted and expected?  If yes, how can you build on it?  If no, how can you use the feedback information you gained to act more effectively next time?

And then you act again.

This is the process for changing the world.  It starts with a big inspiring vision and ends with ongoing action to make that vision a reality.

Do you have a question about the above? Then come ask me in my free office hours:

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Note: cross-posted, with minimal edits, from

How to Clarify Your Vision for Change

Imagine this:

Going through family papers one day you find that there is a small piece of land once owned by a distant relative that is now yours.  After the initial shock, you become curious.  You decide to visit the property.

It is close to where you live, so you decide to drive. You exit the city center, pass the outer residential areas, pass the industrial areas that are even further out. Soon there is more glass, more trees, more sky.

You check your GPS, turn down a quiet street and find yourself at the edge of a beautiful lake that you didn’t even know existed. You double-check that you are in the right place, then park and decide to look around.

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There is some construction equipment scattered about, but you don’t let that distract you.  You stand on your land, beside an empty paint bucket, and close your eyes.  You breathe in the fresh air, hear the birds calling, feeling the warm sun on your skin.

You imagine your dream house, the house you will build on this site.  The image comes to you quickly.  You imagine yourself standing in front of it.  You open the gate and walk up the path.  Soon you are at your own front door.

You turn the key and step inside.   It’s beautiful and calming, exactly where you have always wanted to call home.  You slowly wander from room to room, touching the fabrics, sitting in the furniture, looking out the windows and into the closets.

You walk out onto the porch overlooking the lake and stand there in happiness and awe.  Your friends are all there.  They are throwing you a housewarming party.

You open your eyes.  You are are still standing on your vacant plot of land.  The buckets are still lying around.  But you are so excited, so excited to make your house a reality.

You think about how much money you’ll need to save to get started, where you could find an architect to draw up plans.  You imagine overseeing contractors, watching them turn wood and glass and stone into your house.  You imagine inviting friends to spend weekends with you.

You have a lot a work to do, but you are not afraid.  You feel grateful, so grateful, that you have the opportunity to build this beautiful house.  You are so eager to get to work.

Why don’t we think this way about social change?

But we don’t think this way about social change.  Instead of seeing our ability to make change as a gift and opportunity we are fearful, consumed with self-doubt and cynicism.  We convince ourselves change is impossible or that we are incapable of achieving it.  Instead of realizing we will need people to help us realize our vision, we focus on our own lack of skill.

No one stops trying to build their dream house because they are not an architect.  They understand that if they want to build a house they will need to hire an architect.  Simple as that.  In order to make any large social change we will have to hire or inspire many experts and helpers.  Simple as that.  It is possible.

When we think about our dream house we think from our hearts, not our heads.  We imagine materials that makes us feel warm and safe, structures and styles that we think are beautiful.  We get practical later.   A vision may change when it is implemented.  You may decide that you really don’t need that third bathroom or that you can use laminate instead of real wood in the kitchen.

But that doesn’t change your vision.  You start with a picture of the future that moves and inspires you.  Then you measure every tactical choice against that vision.  It is the vision that guides you, keeps you on track.  If you have a desire to change the world, start by clarifying your vision.

So how do you do that?

Listen to your heart.

What kinds of experiences give you energy?  What pictures of the future fills you with excitement?  What scenarios motivates your to get out of bed every morning?  What activities in your day-to-day life give you a sense of purpose and fulfillment, of peace and connection?  What articles do you read and then want to share with everyone you know?

Your vision is the picture of your future that stokes a fire in your heart.

So make that vision as clear as possible.  Focus in on it.  Spend mental time with it.  Daydream.

Expose yourself to materials related to what you think your vision may be.  Go to events.  Read articles.  Watch TED talk videos.  Talk to friends.

Experiment with elements of your vision right now.  Volunteer at an organization that does that type of work.  Participate in a march, protest, or practical activity.

Then be attentive to how you feel.  Does actually doing this thing make you feel contented? excited? alive? purposeful?  These are all signs that you are getting close to clarifying your vision for social change.

Are you feeling discouraged? drained? frustrated? disconnected? useless?  These are signs that you haven’t quite found your vision yet.  Don’t give up.  Keep reflecting.  Keep experimenting. You will find it.

And, if you have any questions, ask me, either by email, on the Facebook page, or at Friday office hours.

This is just the beginning.


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image: Flickr/Travis & Flickr/Bust it Away Photography

Communication Strategy for Activists

Is Your Communication Helping Your Cause?

Activists communicate to persuade their audiences to act. Learn if your communication is getting you closer to your social change goal with this easy 7-step checklist.

Know the Basics of Activist Communication Strategy

Here are the basics of strategic communication for activists:

    1. Goal: Know what you want to achieve.
    2. Audience: Know who you need to persuade.
    3. Message: Know the content that will persuade your audience to act.
    4. Media: Know how you will transmit your message.
    5. Resources: Know what you can actually do.
    6. Plan: Know when it will happen and who is responsible.
    7. Evaluation: Know if you closer to your goal.

Review the Full Checklist

And here’s the full checklist.  It will help you evaluate the strength of your current communication work.  It also gives tips about how to get back on track if you are not “on-strategy.”

Ask a Question

To ask questions about communication or another aspect of activism strategy, check out my free video-chat office hours every Friday.  Or you can contact me any time here.

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image: Flickr/Justin Norman

Video Advocacy Tips (Deck)

These slides, which I will present on behalf of the Open Society Foundations next month in Dubrovnik, describe what video can do for your campaign, how to get people to watch your video using “social proofing”, and how to measure the effect of your video on your audience through the interpretation YouTube metrics.

Social Media for Nonprofits Conference: What I Learned

ETA (April 30): slide presentation links and video

Thanks to a shout-out from Beth Kanter and Stephanie Rudat, I am taking a break from thesis-writing and grad student work to attend the Social Media for Nonprofits conference in Seattle.  Here’s what I learned from:

Engaging Your Audience

Create media personas for your audiences: Give members of your target audiences names (Nora, Bob) and characteristics (hobbies, shopping habits) to make it easier to write for them. For example, a woman who adopts internationally is more likely to be an evangelist for a nonprofit that provides clean water to kids abroad. This can also help you choose platforms. Should we be on Pinterest? Yeah, Nora is probably on Pinterest and we want to reach her.

Avoid institution-speak: When you are not speaking to specific types of people, you end up using bland, impersonal institution-speak, “like one building talking to another building.” It doesn’t move anyone.  People want to engage with organizations that are “people-like.”

Identify influencers: See who is frequently retweeting or sharing your content. Reach out to them personally via email with content you are trying to promote. You can even call them Ambassadors. They feel special and you get amplification help.

Social proofing for credibility:  Have people outside the organization publicly approve of your cause, for example by a comment on your page that says “I love these people!” Tweets and blog promotions by allies can also achieve this.  This is the first step after you launch your campaign/page: ask your allies to comment and promote, so those who come later are more likely to believe in what you are doing.  Campaigns that are strong in the beginning tend to have success by the end.

Acquiring Resources

No silver bullet for fundraising… still: This is still the main pitch to management for using social media.  Yet fundraising through social media is really hard.  Pitching fundraising to managers are a way to get buy-in for social media work may seem like a good idea in the beginning, but you may be promising more than you can deliver.  Don’t start using social media to try to raise money.  Ask your allies for other kinds of help and support (promotion, volunteering), and build from there.

Successful crowdfunding:  You don’t need to ask for money, you can also ask for time or other in-kind resources.  On your crowdfunding page, write in “snackable” headlines.  (Go into more detail on your organization blog.)  Set your goal as 85% of what you think you can achieve, not what you want to achieve.  A good deadline is 45-60 days. Make tiers tied to explicit benefits ($10 buys a school supply set, $45 buys a school uniform).   Have a high tier that is really silly (for $10,000 the executive director dresses up in a chicken suit).  Photos are better than nothing and videos are better than photos.  45 seconds to a minute is an ideal length for a video.

Crowdfunding stages: Know that donations will slow in the middle of the campaign, and plan specific promotions for the middle.  In the beginning sell the vision.  In the end sell the finish line (we are almost there!).  Follow up by showing donors what they’ve achieved.  Then they become evangelists because they are part of your narrative. Use social proofing to establish credibility.

Use Linkedin: For donors and skilled volunteers.  Few NGOs use it, but they should.

Writing Tips

Email content: Social media increases expectations for small amounts of content.  People have tons of email to read in a day.  Write short messages.  Email newsletters have way too much content.  People are more and more likely to read it on a mobile device.  (This also is a reason to write shorter messages.)

Email subject lines: Write an engaging subject line.  You have two seconds with your subject line to convince a busy person to open your email.  Open rates are only one metric.  Better to ask what they did after they opened (ie, did they follow a link in the email, take an action).  Send any email to yourself before sending it to your list to catch errors.

Be human: Write to educate your media personas.  Write about what your organization is, who the staff members are – “share the people.”  Tell their favorite foods and movies.  Drive the “human-ness.”  Write about what you have access to and they don’t.  Always add a picture to your text.   A photo album (on Facebook) is even better.  (After an event, supporters will look for photos of themselves that the organization posts.)

Curate: You don’t need to create, you can curate.  Share information you receive from others (make sure to give credit.)   Repurpose and reuse content between platforms.  Use the same content “kernel” and write it up for Facebook, Twitter, the organization’s blog….

Schedule recurring topics: Have themes for every day of the week.  On Monday it’s a healthy recipe, Tuesday is a blog post by the director’s dog, Wednesday is a staff explanation of a policy issue.  This allows you to engage with different media personas in a systematic way and to be able to plan content so staff know what to expect.

Be guided by principles: Follow principles like those of the Red Cross, whose writers must create content that is accurate, relevant, considerate, transparent (if you screw up), human, and compassionate.  Know why are you are telling a story.  If you don’t know why, you probably shouldn’t do it.  Identifying why will help you write the story better.

How often to post:  3-5 times a week on social media is the lower limit.  To really grow you need daily activity.  If you use automated tools, use slightly different language on different platforms.  For email, no more than monthly contact.  It’s okay to send less.  Sending more is not okay (people don’t like to feel bombarded).

When to post: Test different times and see what time of the day and week get more opens or comments.  Posting Tuesday to Thursday is best.  Monday is a stressful time.  On Friday people are already thinking of the weekend, and don’t want to engage in new work.  Also auto-post on weekends.

Organizational Strategy

Remember to plan:  Start from the end date (for example, the date of an event) and then plan backwards to the first action (for example, sending the first invite).  Plan what content you will produce at what time for what audience.  Create a spreadsheet where each column is a week and each row is a type of content.   Then the entire staff knows what work they will need to do and you won’t have a burst of activity at the launch and panic at the end.  You can build support or participation throughout the period of the campaign.

Use Google tools to coordinate staff: Using a Google spreadsheet means all staff will be able to see it.  Google calendars can be useful for scheduling content.  For example, you could create a blog post calendar that all staff can see, so everyone will know who is posting what blog post on what day on what topic.

Use case studies and data: Data are important to communication managers, but case studies convince, both externally and to a board or organizational leadership. Also, you will have case studies before you have data, so start where you can. has great free reports.

Employees on social media: Have employees that will be tweeting for you create a brand-specific online identity (example: @HootKemp). This allows employees to help with amplification while also dividing their personal and professional social media profiles. Also provide them training, for example, not accidentally posting to an official profile with a personal message. HooteSuite calls their training program HooteSuite University.

Org leaders on social media: Executive Directors may want to farm out their social media comments, but they can gain more attention (and inspire staff) more if they do it themselves.

General Conference Take-Aways

Adoption is slow: Not much has changed nonprofit social media adoption since before I started grad school a couple of years ago.  When a speaker says that nonprofits need to target specific audiences, not the general public, pens start writing.  Best practices have not changed that much (engagement, fundraising, content creation).

There is still institutional push-back: Communications staff are still often not getting understanding and support from management on the use of social media. Managers are still not trusting their employees to engage in social media on behalf of the organization.

Still fuzzy on measurement:  There’s some appreciation for social media metrics (follows, likes, shares), but not much toward connecting these to offline impacts, beyond fundraising goals.

Incremental gains:  Small insights are accruing (social proofing, media personas) and some organizations are using new tools (Vine, Instagram, mobile phones rather than laptops), though social media use among nonprofits is not so different than it was a few years ago.

Slide quality is soaring: Presentations at the conference (like this this and this) had top-shelf graphic design. Two included professionally-made videos.  One is below.)  Slide presentations are becoming an increasingly important means of professional communication. Complex animation is not important. Professional and high-resolution photography and a small amount of clear text are.  This is probably the greatest change I’ve seen in the past few years.

9 Quick-Start Blog Posts for Activists

Activists blog to build community, both by sharing resources and by strengthening relationships.

Yet they also have limited time.  Using pre-existing formats can help activists blog faster since they don’t have to start with a blank page.

These 9 types of blog posts below can serve a variety of topics and causes.  The steps to their creation, as well as examples from some of the best nonprofit blogs, are included in the slideshow.

The Posts:

  1. The Pass-it-Along Post
  2. The “We’re Real People” Post
  3. The Community Appreciation Post
  4. The “Our Response” Post
  5. The Informative Listicle
  6. The Mobilization Post
  7. The Ignored News Story
  8. The Guest Post
  9. The Email Interview



Thanks to NOH8 Campaign, ONE, Surfrider Foundation, Greenpeace, Invisible People, Human Rights Campaign, The Nonprofit Technology Network, Beth Kanter, and Melissa Gira Grant for the great examples.

What are other types of blog posts that you’ve used time and again as an activist blogger?

An Activist’s Guide to VPN Services

This article was written by IVPN’s CEO Nick Pearson.

IVPN is a virtual private network (NPN) and an Electronic Frontier Foundation member and is dedicated to protecting online privacy. While I usually don’t promote businesses on this site, VPNs are an important, yet little-understood activist tool, so when IVPN proposed the article to me, I accepted. Psiphon is an alternative free VPN option. – Mary

What You’ll Learn in This Post

Many digital activists have good reasons for wanting to protect their online activity from prying eyes.  Many turn to commercial Virtual Private Network companies in order to do so.  But there are also a great deal of misconceptions around what a VPN can and cannot do. In this article we’re going to explain:

  • What VPNs do
  • How they benefit activists,
  • Their limitations
  • What you need to look out for when choosing a VPN service.

What Does a Virtual Private Network Do?

1) Obscures user location Firstly, as the name suggests, privacy-focused VPN services allow their users to send data across a public network (such as the Internet) as if it were being sent across a private network. So from the perspective of a website, or online service (such as Skype or Facebook), the user’s connection originates from the VPN server’s location, and not the location where the user actually resides.

2) Encrypts data (with limitations) Secondly, a VPN can encrypt any data being sent between the user’s computer and the VPN service. This can prevent eavesdroppers from, for instance, spying on your activity over a public WiFi connection. However the last leg of traffic, from the VPN server to the web service, can be monitored, unless end-to-end security such as HTTPS is used. Nevertheless, even if the traffic is monitored, it would derive from the VPN server and not your actual location – thus protecting your identity.

3) Obscures online activity Thirdly, when using a VPN your Internet Service Provider can no longer view, log, or control your internet activity. The ISP can only determine that you’ve connected to the VPN’s server. Instead the VPN now becomes the entity able to record your activity. This obviously has its benefits and potential drawbacks, which we’ll cover below.

Why Do Digital Activists Use VPNs?

So what are the benefits of using a VPN for activists? For many activists living in censorious regimes, a VPN (or similar proxy service like TOR) is essential, as it gives them the ability to circumvent local internet filters, so they can access prohibited content and services.

The other major benefit is that activists can avoid being monitored by eavesdroppers and can avoid having their internet activity logged and stored by their ISP. Such anti-surveillance precautions are vital if an activist wants to protect their identity online.

It’s already a legal requirement for all EU ISPs to log and record user data for the entirety of a user’s subscription and up to two years after the subscription has been cancelled (although there are still a few EU countries fighting this law).

In the US, there currently is no legal requirement for data retention for ISPs, although the Obama administration has pushed for it in the past. However, US ISPs still voluntarily retain customer data in order to cooperate with law enforcement. This data will include logs of what web services and websites you are accessing, though it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) contain the contents of emails, or social media activity (that’s what PRISM is for of course).

The ability for authorities to access your entire web history via mass surveillance programmes therefore poses a genuine risk to activists in all countries, not just those living under oppressive regimes. There have been countless times throughout history where activists in democracies have broken illegitimate laws in order to protest effectively, just as there’s also been times when the establishment has attempted to publicly discredit activists in whatever way they can.

What’s the Difference Between a VPN and TOR?

If you’re looking for a simple way to protect your privacy online then you’re usually faced with two options: VPNs or TOR. The Onion Router (TOR) is a very popular anonymizing tool amongst privacy-conscious internet users. Like VPNs, TOR allows a user to make websites and web services believe they are accessing the internet from a different location and it also encrypts traffic, making it difficult for any evesdroppers to access your data. However the last leg of traffic, at the final exit node, can be monitored, unless end-to-end security such as HTTPS is used.

Although not completely secure, Tor is designed to provide strong anonymity. It does this by relaying traffic through a series of random TOR nodes, setup in such a way that the last node the traffic exits from cannot tell from which node the traffic entered from. This removes the necessity to have to trust any single entity with your anonymity (unlike a VPN service) and is the most suitable for dissidents and activists who’s lives depend on their anonymity.

So when using TOR you have to trust the – often anonymous – people setting-up exit nodes not to monitor your traffic, while with a VPN you have to trust the company itself not to do the same.

TOR has the benefit of being completely free-to-use, while most VPNs will charge a subscription. The fact you have to pay for a VPN also introduces another security risk (as most forms of payment can reveal your identity). However, while TOR is free, is can also considerably slow down your web browsing, and is not really suitable for downloading large files or streaming content. A VPN on the other hand will usually be fast enough to allow you to use the internet without changing your browsing habits whatsoever.

What VPNs Can’t Do

Since the PRISM revelations there has been an increase in VPN usage, but it must be stressed that neither VPNs, nor TOR, can protect you from the type of surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden.

This is because PRISM involved creating “backdoors” into the servers of web services such as Google and Yahoo. So it doesn’t matter whether your traffic is encrypted, or if your location is obscured. If the government can read the emails in your Gmail account, then the only way to stop this is to not open a Gmail account in the first place. 

The one area where using a VPN might help, is that the emails you send won’t be linked to your actual IP address. But this is only useful if your identity cannot be confirmed by other information that may be stored in your Google account, or elsewhere.

So remember, even if you’re using a privacy tool, you still have the ultimate responsibility for protecting your identity. Information gleaned from tweets, blog posts, Facebook pictures, etc, could easily give away who you really are and perhaps put your work at risk.

What are the Dangers of Using VPNs?

Relying on a VPN to protect your privacy requires a degree of trust between you and the company running the service.

It’s entirely possible for a VPN company to be subpoenaed by the authorities and forced into monitoring a user. Just as it’s entirely possible for a TOR node to be set-up by the very authorities you’re trying to avoid.

It’s also possible that a VPN company is not really serious about its users’ privacy in the first place. As we mentioned, one of the core benefits of using a VPN is that your web activity is not being stored by an ISP. If a VPN company is wiping its data logs regularly, then any demands to hand over logs cannot be met.

However, many VPN companies do in fact maintain logs, in some cases storing them even longer than ISPs. Some VPNs state this clearly in their privacy policy, while others do not mention it whatsoever. So always check the small print before signing-up.

What to Consider When Choosing a VPN

So if you’re looking to sign-up to a VPN service, what should you consider? Here’s a brief run down.

What is the company’s data retention policy? – This is perhaps the most important step and it involves finding the VPN’s privacy policy and seeing whether it logs data and for how long. Anything beyond a few days should not be considered. For more information on this, check out IVPN’s guide to reading privacy policies.

Payment options – If you don’t want anyone to know you’re using a VPN then Bitcoin – while not completely secure – is probably the best option when it comes to payment.

What if laws change? – Trying to determine what VPN to choose based on where the company is headquartered isn’t straightforward, as VPNs in nearly all countries are susceptible to being undermined by the authorities. But it is reasonable to ask a VPN what it will do if laws change in its country regarding the legal status of the service offered. Will it notify customers of any changes in relevant laws? Will it relocate to a different jurisdiction? Will it give you a refund? Ideally these issues should be covered in its terms and conditions, but if not, ask them directly.

Image: Flickr/Susan Melkisethian


Measuring the Effectiveness of Digital Activism Campaigns

Here’s a first draft of metrics for measuring the effectiveness of digital activism campaigns.  Feedback welcome.  Direct download here (PDF).

5 Basics of Digital Strategy for Youth Engagement

Last month I gave a big training for YMCA youth program staff .  (Did you know that it’s the biggest nonprofit in America and that 90% of us live within 10 miles of one?)   I created a cheat sheet (pdf) on digital strategy for youth engagement, which I’m sharing here.  It’s the usual strategic elements of goal, audience, media, and planning, with more lolcats to motivate attention and sharing.


Social Media Promotion in 5 Easy Steps (Slides)

For a presentation to YMCA youth workers in North Carolina that I’ll be giving next week:

Steps are:

  1. Schedule (time to do your social media work)
  2. Listen (to people online who influence your target audience)
  3. Connect (to those influencers and share their content)
  4. Mobilize (those influencers by subsequently asking them to share your content)
  5. Save the “Starter” (save you contacts so you can use them next time)

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