Activism & Organizing

Accidental advocates: Speak out to find your voice

Laurie Landgraf wasn’t always an advocate.

But in the summer of 2011, shortly before the former teacher was to start enjoying retirement in the small-town Wisconsin “dream cabin” she’d purchased with her husband Dave, he was killed by a distracted driver while riding his bike. Although evidence showed the driver was talking and texting at the time of the crash, no felony charges were filed and she instead received mere traffic citations.

Today, Laurie makes her voice heard by standing up for cell-free driving.


Advocates come from many paths to care for the rights of others.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Like many advocates, Laurie received her call to service by happenstance, not through honed intention. And it hasn’t been easy to take on this new identity, especially in the face of so much anger and grief. In 2013, Laurie spoke with the storytellers at Living Proof about her journey. Here are some excerpts:

I’m feeling more comfortable calling myself an “advocate.” I’m working towards that. And it’s definitely been a process. When I spoke at [my first] event to about 50-60 people, I was not very prepared; I just spoke from the heart. But I did find my voice there, and that was the beginning of feeling like this is the direction I should go in.

It surprised me to find my voice; I had been quiet for so long. I couldn’t physically and emotionally wrap my head around the whole thing because I was just in such a grief state. But I started realizing that I’ve got this experience I could turn from a tragedy into something positive. What I’m hoping to do is to tell the truth behind the tragedy.

It isn’t easy to speak out. It will always bring me back to that day and what I experienced. So that takes courage and it also takes practice. But I do think the long-term is—and I have heard this from other advocates—that if you can make a difference in one person’s life, or make one person think before acting, that really is what it’s all about.

Read more on the Living Proof blog.

How have you found your voice as a new advocate?



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Would social media have helped Nelson Mandela fight apartheid?

Today is Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday. There are various conversations and events happening online and offline celebrating his life and impact. What stood out to me is the above video which chronicles Nelson Mandela’s life via social media.

According to Mashable,


Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela

“To commemorate the occasion, Prezence Digital Production created an information-packed but easily digestible video detailing the events of Mandela’s life. The four-minute video is a quick tour of Mandela’s timeline, told through a combination of hypothetical Facebook status updates, tweets, Instagram photos and Foursquare check-ins. It contains archival photos and actual quotes from Mandela, relatives, friends, political figures and media outlets.

The video, backed by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, runs on the premise that Mandela may not have spent 27 years in captivity if social media platforms were available back then.”

While the video is meant to be a fun way to explore the life and impact of Nelson Mandela, it also made me wonder: what role does social media play in moving social movements forward?

Do you have examples or thoughts on this? Share them below.

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One key way to stay passionate about your work


Sometimes it's easy to feel discouraged. (Photo credit: darrentunicliff, Creative Commons/Flickr)

In a 2010 TED talk, co-founder Jessica Jackley shared what motivated her to launch the microlending organization. Though she focused on how we need to reexamine our discussions and support of people who are poor, what resonated most with me was her journey from passive giver to active supporter. Instead of donating to organizations out of hope, excitement, and generosity, she donated to get away from a problem that seemed too big to address. In fact, she often wondered if social change was actually possible.

It wasn’t until she heard stories from people who were trying to move themselves out of poverty that she reconnected with her passion for change. Watch her talk to learn more about her journey.

Though many of us do what we can to make a difference, sometimes we can get disconnected from the issues we’re trying to solve and the people we’re trying to help, especially if we’re not always doing direct service or the issues we’re addressing require long-term solutions. For Jessica, the key to staying connected was to reach out: “The best way to be inspired to try is to stop and to listen to someone else’s story.”

Questions for the community: how do you stay inspired, motivated, and connected to the work you do? What reminds you that social change IS possible?

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Know the rules: Nonprofits in an election year

2012: A leap year. The year the world might end. And of course, an election year, with something on the ballot in every city and state in the U.S. I’ve found that folks who work for social change tend to pay close attention to politics and elections – which makes it extra important that nonprofit professionals know what the rules are about how agencies, staffs, and volunteers can be engaged in politics.

How do the rules apply to you?

First of all, it matters what kind of a nonprofit you work or volunteer with.

  • For 501(c)(3)s in the U.S., the election rules are pretty simple: such organizations must not do anything that furthers, or hinders, the chances of election of any candidate for any public office. Charitable resources must not be used for political contributions of any sort.
  • Other sorts of organizations have many more opportunities to get involved in the political process than c3s, but even they must be careful not to step over the lines in federal, state and local rules. Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code is the reference point for foundations and other public charities. State and local laws may make further, different distinctions, so any organization which might get involved in politics in any way will need to check those too.

What makes this complicated?

Nothing about that flat prohibition on “electioneering” says that nonprofits cannot work to improve democracy. They can encourage people to vote, help to clarify issues, and make known their own views on policy goals. They just have to do these things in a way that is impartial among the candidates who are running for office.

What you can and can’t do published Nonprofits, Voting & Elections: An online guide to nonpartisan voter participation activities for 501(c)(3) organizations, which can help your nonprofit’s board and executives understand the ins and outs of doing business in an election year.

But what about volunteers and staff members? Does any of this apply to them as they go about their daily routines? Yes and no:

  • featured

    Photo: Sonya Green, Flickr/Creative Commons

    Whenever people are representing a nonprofit in any official capacity, they have to make sure that they steer clear of that prohibition on electioneering. That certainly means avoiding doing anything that might be seen as the nonprofit itself endorsing one candidate, or dissing another…

  • But employees and volunteers don’t give up their rights as citizens. They can do things—on the job and off—that indicate their personal support for a candidate, like having a campaign sign in the window of their own car in the front yard of their house. They can sign petitions, contribute money, and go door-knocking. It’s just that they have to mute their connections to the nonprofit where they work while doing those things.

To learn more, check out these resources from NonprofitVOTE and the Alliance for Justice: What Staff Can Do and Election Activities of Individuals Associated with 501(c)(3) Organizations (PDF).

P.S. Idealist can help!

Want to promote election year events? Recruit Get Out the Vote (GOTV) volunteers? Announce a nonpartisan voter guide? You can use your organization page on Idealist to do all of these things. Get started here.

And comment below to tell us, and others, about your organization’s plans to participate in the democratic process this year.

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A happy Happy New Year


Is your community's "happiness flag" showing signs of wear and tear? (Photo: Rachel Kramer, Flickr/Creative Commons)

How happy are we?

Most everyone would agree that being happy is a good thing—along with the coming of spring, a robust economy, and clean air to breathe. For most nations, there are detailed, current statistics about the weather, the state of the economy, and the atmosphere (not to mention many other things). Statistics about happiness are a little harder to come by.

The government of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has made it a priority to measure “Gross National Happiness” as a summary of national wellbeing. Since 2005 a national effort has been underway to assess not just economic activity in the nation (“Gross National Product” in economist-speak), but to attend to data from eight other “domains” that impact people’s lives, such as health, education, community vitality, and cultural resilience. The website provides the official explanation of the project and reports on the results of the calculation of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index for 2010.

There is no such national index for the USA so far. In my hometown, Sustainable Seattle is using the concept to develop a happiness index for communities. The idea is to supplement its other initiatives and build a long-term future of health and well-being. The project has two components: a set of objective statistics that create a profile of a region’s progress toward meeting goals related to sustainability, and a personal happiness survey that anyone can take. At the end of the survey, each respondent’s answers are compared to the overall response from all survey-takers. Food for thought as a new year begins.

No such thing as personal happiness?

For his 2008 book The Geography of Bliss, reporter Eric Weiner visited nine varied countries, looking for the happiest place on earth. He found some very disappointing spots, including one place where people “derive more pleasure from their neighbor’s failure than their own success. I can’t imagine anything less happy.”

In contrast, when he talked with Bhutanese scholar Karma Ura, he heard “There is no such thing as personal happiness. Happiness is one hundred percent relational.” Weiner reflected: “At the time I didn’t take him literally. I thought he was exaggerating to make his point…But now I realize Karma meant exactly what he said. Our happiness is completely and utterly intertwined with other people: family and friends and neighbors and…people you hardly notice. Happiness is not a noun or verb. It’s a conjunction. Connective tissue.”

This general point is repeated over and over again in the literature. Arthur Brooks, President of the Heritage Foundation, concludes his book “Gross National Happiness” with a quick review of social scientists’ results demonstrating that all sorts of activities that benefit others—from the most direct sorts of help to family and friends to the abstractions of making donations to help people in far-away lands—are closely related to general feelings of happiness and well-being.

Five steps to happiness

In the UK, a study for the National Health Service called Five Ways to Well-Being concluded that these simple steps would improve people’s lives in measurable ways (and sharply reduce the risks of mental illness too!):

  • Connect with the people around you
  • Be active
  • Take notice of what’s around you
  • Keep learning
  • Give

How will you do these things in the coming year?

Not to toot our own horn too loudly, it still bears saying that offers lots of opportunities for doing all five. Just a few minutes clicking through listings in your community, or in your area of interest, or for the sorts of things you want to do will turn up things to do and places to go.

With your personal profile from Sustainable Seattle’s survey in front of you, and some reflection about the Five Ways to Well-Being, Idealist’s listings are one way to make sure you have a happy Happy New Year.

Best wishes for 2012 from all of us!

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Rescuing books from the trash in Bogotá

How one man’s idea to rescue books from the trash contributed to everyday life in Bogotá.


José Alberto in one of his many libraries

Recently my colleague Elena interviewed José Alberto about his success in recycling books for schoolkids in Bogotá, Colombia. (You can read her original post in Spanish at

In his work as a trash hauler, José Alberto observed usable books discarded by households throughout the city.

He knew that children in the low-income neighborhood near his home had difficulty getting the books they needed for their school work, there was no bookstore nearby, and the nearest library was a long way away.

So fifteen years ago, he decided to rescue them and make them available to the kids in his neighborhood. Starting in the ground floor of his own home, he has expanded the network of bibliotecas into eight neighborhoods of the city. As word of his project has spread, more and more Bogotános donate used books directly to him, avoiding the detour into a waste bin.

Elena says that José’s entire family has been involved in this never-ending project for 15 years now: “They don’t have a car or even a little motorbike, and frequently they cross the city after somebody’s call to pick up boxes of books that then they carry in buses all across the city.” By opening his own home as a place to find books, José Alberto started something that has changed the lives of thousands of children (and their parents) in Bogotá.

Did you know we have a Spanish site? parallels the offerings of Idealist with jobs, volunteer opportunities, and frequent updates on its blog. If you can point out a project or activity that should be highlighted for visitors to Idealistas, please let us know.

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Are you a bureaucrat?

If you’re reading this, it’s definitely possible.

In a recent New York Times piece called Don’t Let Bureaucracy Ruin Your Day, Russell Bishop explains that the roots of the word “bureaucrat” come from the French word for desk or office and the Greek word for rule. So if you sit behind a desk (even part of the time) and develop procedures for others to follow (even if not very often) then you fit the classical definition of a bureaucrat.

Many people arrive at social change work—either starting up their own social enterprise, or taking a nonprofit job—because they want to avoid bureaucracy. After all, everyone has encountered a frustrating roadblock that’s explained as “just our policy,” and sometimes even the people most directly involved have only a hazy idea of why that particular policy exists or what it’s good for. Who wouldn’t want to break free?

But it’s easier to start something than it is to stop. So policies, procedures, rules, and regulations have a tendency to multiply, complexify, and persist. Piecemeal reforms often make things worse by tweaking one part of the problem but leaving the rest unchanged and even more difficult to understand.


Turn those frowns upside down. Photo: Glen_Wright, Flickr/Creative Commons

But Bishop believes there’s a cure. It’s not necessarily easy – but stick with it and it may be fun and liberating.

Is it your job to administer a rule that seems to chafe? Then figure out how to ease the pain. Find deeper-than-average ways to review why the rule exists, how it might be changed, and what the benefit might be.

Put together a little group of people affected by the rule – including, of course, the people who need it to make their lives easier or safer. Bishop suggests three short questions that might guide a conversation with these people:

  • Based on what we are learning, what do we need to stop doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • And what do we need to start doing?

A candid talk about the whys and wherefores of any rule should generate suggestions for change and ideas about how to smooth out the rough spots.

I think it’s worth a try. I’d love to live in a world where bureaucratic barriers are less common, where rules simply help everyone to succeed rather than tripping people up.

What do you think? Is it possible to be a good bureaucrat?

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Idea File: Actions speak loudest when shared


Screenshot of actions on One Tama

Boyet Dy thinks it’s time for us to stop talking about changing “the world.” Instead, the Manila local is encouraging me to change “my world” — one action at a time.

The idea

One Tama is a campaign 26-year-old Boyet, a government employee in the Philippines, created to show how the little things add up. (Tama is the Filipino word for “right.”) The idea is that by simply sharing your good actions, you can inspire others to do the same. Using a nifty number counter, for example, the site shows 1744 completed deeds ranging from carpooling to listening, with over four thousand more in progress.

One Tama also encourages real world interaction by hosting Action Days, such as simultaneous use of recyclable bags at the grocery store.

Intentions to action

A couple years ago, Boyet was listening to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack when David Bowie’s “Heroes” popped on. The lyrics “Just for one day/We can be heroes” made him think about his fellow Filipinos. “That was the genesis of One Tama, and it’s really the notion of everyday heroism – that every single day is loaded with opportunities to be a hero for your country because there’s always a right action within your reach that can be done,” he says.

Boyet then presented the idea to a group of dedicated and diverse idealists he had been a part of since college. The group was enthusiastic from the getgo, and he found that their shared values was an incredible asset as well as their willingness to ask others for help. The website, for example, was voluntarily created by a nonprofit communications group he serendipitously met while building One Tama.

Replicability factor

Of course, the campaign is not without its challenges. One Tama is soley run by volunteers, and their current obstacles are to find more volunteers and funding sources.

But let’s say you like this idea and think you can address these challenges. What would you need to copy this in your community? An intimate, committed group to initially help get it off the ground, and outside experts to fill in the knowledge gaps. It also helps to have a succinct catchphrase to explain the idea and a firm belief that change can happen on an individual level. “At its core, the One Tama campaign is not merely a call to be a good Filipino – it is a call to be a good human being which makes it not only applicable but also relevant in other contexts,” says Boyet.

Have you done something small recently that counts as one tama?

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Help voters answer basic questions

Where do I vote? What’s on the ballot? How can I access more information?


From Flickr user Shayan (Creative Commons)

In the U.S., we’re gearing up for mid-term elections tomorrow. These three crucial questions are on the minds of many, and the Voting Information Project (VIP) – a nonpartisan partnership between the New Organizing Institute, Google, the Pew Center on the States, and local election officials – wants to help you help your people find the answers.

According to the VIP, “on Super Tuesday 2008, over half (56%) of the calls to Election Protection hotlines concerned problems with the polling place, while another third (33%) concerned registration problems.” So this year, the group has created a free online polling place locator that you can customize and embed on any site in about 90 seconds. Visit the Google Election Center now to learn more.

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Does social media really mean the end of social revolution?

“The revolution will not be Tweeted,” claims Malcolm Gladwell in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. Bringing us back to the early 1960s and the U.S. Civil Rights Movements, Gladwell writes that huge upheavals coming from social unrest that led to major change happened precisely because of a lack of texts, tweets, and Facebook friends. The social change mini-revolutions that happen today are smaller scale and have less impact than ones like the Civil Rights Movement due to the fact that the tools that drive them rely too heavily on the weak bonds between members of social networks. Further, being that online social activism is based on ease of participation — people end up making very little personal sacrifice, a necessary component of any social change movement.


Via flickr user david_shankbone (Creative Commons)

Gladwell seems to think that these aspects of social networking might have hindered the civil rights movement by decentralizing the authority of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the N.A.A.C.P., destabilizing the strong, in person bonds of the movement’s members, and letting people “participate” without having to make the huge sacrifices that were required to stage sit-ins, march, or speak out in public, risking abuse, jail time, and even death.

But what about the large scale social revolutions that are happening today?

Social networks don’t seem to have eliminated protests, even if it might be true that they are not being driven by them. Look at the extremely well organized students of Buenos Aires, Argentina who have essentially taken control of 30 city public schools to protest deteriorating conditions. These students became highly organized offline, inside their classrooms. But, when thousands of people gathered to march in the capital earlier this month, information was shared via social networks, increasing participation and pushing the protesters’ message to government officials and traditional media outlets.

Yes, movements that have a lasting societal impact are going to happen offline. For every hundred thousand people that “like” an initiative on Facebook, nothing is going to change unless at least a fraction of these people show up at rallies, donate, or vote in upcoming elections. But, didn’t only a fraction of people participate in the Civil Right’s Movement? Hopefully, the real power of social media is making information about a movement’s progress and how to participate more visible and accessible — hopefully increasing the percentage of people who will take things offline, and make real sacrifices for their cause.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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