Agricultural Scientists use Social Media to Amplify their Voices for Public Health

by Carol Lynn Curchoe

“Fed” up with the aggressive and damaging marketing tactics of the $45 billion dollar per year organic industry, academic scientists and teachers are biting back, despite being ill-equipped for the personal and professional risks of taking on a well-funded industry.

For three decades the organic industry and anti-biotechnology extremists have worked to deploy and further a very poignant and specific narrative: that opposition to genetically engineered crops (“GMOs”) is based on corporate greed and dangerous pesticide use, and that organic products are safer and more nutritious than conventional varieties.

The scientists, professors, and teachers that are working to feed and clothe the world through agricultural biotechnology have been horrified that their life’s work is being vilified and turned into a marketing tactic, so they have turned to social media to communicate the story behind their work directly to the public.

Concurrently with this movement, several genetically modified organisms have also gone “off patent” (their corporate patents have expired), several GMOs have been developed, which are free from any corporate ties, nonprofit crop trials have been destroyed- catching the attention of the media, and lastly, over 2,000 independently funded academic studies have proven the safety and utility of GMOs over the last thirty years, most recently cumulating in a “trillion-meal” study. This study by University of California-Davis Department of Animal Science, is the most comprehensive study of GMOs and food ever conducted. While the sheer size of the dataset was extraordinary (more than 100 billion animals covering a period of nearly 30 years, the findings were not- the authors showed zero extraordinary impact on animals fed GMOs.

In other words, the tightly controlled organic industry narrative of “corporate greed and dangerous pesticide” use has been disrupted by the scientists and teachers that make up the agricultural “science advocacy” (sometimes called agvocacy) community as well as further developments in the field.

Disconcertingly, the “agvocates” who engage in public discourse through social media have been underprepared to delve into the sometime troubling waters of digital activism. Their jobs, families, research, and property have been threatened and harassed.

A few examples illustrate this point well.

In 2015 Cornell University, with funding primarily from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, began a fellowship program called the Cornell Alliance For Science with the goal of “reclaiming the conversation around agricultural biotechnology so that science- and evidence-based perspectives drive decision-making.”

The organic industry funded blog GM Watch has targeted Cornell Alliance For Science in a string of coordinated attacks. They accuse Cornell University as “complicit in a shocking amount of ecologically destructive, academically unethical, and scientifically deceitful behaviour.” Followers of the blog have been encouraged to harass a coop where Cornell was hosting a talk in order to cancel the event. Another anti-biotechnology blog, Agra Watch, has specifically assigned an individual to “investigate” Cornell University and their public relations activities.

Agra Watch also waged a campaign against Iowa State University’s biofortified banana, disrupting publicly funded research, which has the potential to prevent blindness in thousands of people in Uganda.

Kevin Folta of the University of Florida is a well-respected scientist, who has worked since the dawn of GMO technology 29 years ago in academic laboratories, producing dozens of Ph.D. graduates and mentoring over 120 undergraduates, while making significant contributions to the field of plant nutrition.

Folta has been a target of these attacks for years, starting first with a FOIA requests on his emails, and progressing to cyber bullying and real-life breaks-ins and threats against his family. Anti-biotechnology activists were encouraged to call Dr. Folta’s employer to complain about him. Recently, he garnered the wrath of the activists with a podcast discussing the success of GMO eggplant (bt-brinjal) in Bangladesh. This crop variety was developed to resist the endemic pest called fruit and shoot borer, and therefore requires drastically less pesticides than is conventionally applied by farmers. This is South Asia’s first GMO food crop, and has been developed in the public sector for distribution by the government to poor smallholder farmers, so that they can use up to 80% less insecticide.

Folta said of the incident:

“It appears that science has hit a nerve. Some of the poorest people are growing food and eating, sustainably.  You’d think that critics would be celebrating.  But to an emotional and science-free movement, when the technology they oppose serves others, they are caught between acknowledging that it is doing good and abandoning their sacred belief that this technology can do no good– ever.”

Greenpeace has a long history of disrupting GM research in foreign countries, and most recently Greenpeace activists destroyed publicly funded research in Australia- test fields of a new strain of GM wheat developed with a lower glycemic index and increased fiber content to improve bowel health.

It is clear that universities and public research institutions should provide a framework of best practices and an established support mechanism for scientists who are engaging directly in science advocacy through social media. Additionally, storytelling is an essential component for nonprofit communication, and may be especially important for effectively communicating complicated and emotional stories about science and the food supply and environmental sustainability.

Doing Well by Doing Good: B Corporations in DC

by Edwina Dueñas

Washington, DC is filled with do-gooders and change makers across all industries, from grassroots organizations to startup social enterprises. What’s more, a recent study by Halcyon Incubator named DC the top city for social entrepreneurs in the country. It’s safe to say the District is a hub of social impact and innovation.

B CorporationsA key part of that “hub” is the community of fifteen certified B Corps headquartered in DC. B Corps – also known as benefit corporations – are for-profit companies using business as a force for good. By meeting a rigorous set of standards in transparency, sustainability, and performance, businesses become certified B Corps. B Lab is the nonprofit behind these certifications. Since 2007, B Lab has certified 1,929 businesses in over 50 countries across 130 industries. Companies pursue certification on a voluntary basis, and maintain it by meeting B Lab’s standards. As stated by B Lab, “B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.” The roster of certified B Corps includes companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Warby Parker, Kickstarter, Patagonia and more.

While the B Corp community is global, these companies make a social, environmental, and economic impact in the cities they’re based in. Below is a look into how three DC-based B Corps do good by doing business.

ThreespotThreespot logo

Founded in 1999 and a B Corp since 2015, Threespot helps nonprofits, foundations, and organizations achieve their missions more effectively. A digital agency, Threespot specializes in areas such as communications strategy, user experience, and visual design. The company combines its expertise with passion for positive change to help clients mobilize their missions. While Threespot has worked with a range of clients, by 2013, the company unequivocally decided to become specialists in the social good space.

For founder Bill Barbot, pursuing B Corp certification was a way of planting a flag for what he believed in – both personally and professionally.

“My interest is in running a company that I am absolutely proud of running,” says Bill. “[Being a] B Corp is a great tool for our prospective clients and employees [to show] who we are and what we stand for as a company.”

Threespot works with organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, The USO, National Parks Conservation Association, and The Hilton Foundation. Learn more about Threespot’s work and ongoing projects.

Arcadia Power logoArcadia Power

Arcadia Power is a renewable energy company founded with one simple mission in mind: to make our world better by changing the way we power our homes and businesses, from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.

The company has been a B Corp since 2014 and was honored on B the Change Media’s Best for the World list in 2015 and 2016. Honorees are leaders in demonstrating how businesses can be a force for good in the world.

“Our goal to make clean energy, specifically wind and solar, available to any American in all 50 states aligns with B Corp’s philosophy for community improvement and environmental performance,” notes Elise Contas, Business Development Associate at Arcadia Power. “We’re striving to make clean energy more inclusive, and want to improve our communities so that they’re cleaner and healthier for future generations.”

Arcadia Power solar panels

Arcadia Power’s Solar Panels

Arcadia Power collaborates with leaders in sustainability to inform Americans on their energy options. Partners include the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, and Daily Kos. Furthermore, the company actively carries out its mission in the local community. Arcadia Power is currently building 10 rooftop solar projects in DC at zero upfront cost to the homeowner.

Union Kitchen logoUnion Kitchen

Union Kitchen builds community by creating a food system that propels local businesses to succeed. The company – founded in 2012 and certified as a B Corp in 2014 – provides kitchen space to entrepreneurs who want to kick start or accelerate their food business. Since launching, Union Kitchen has helped favorite DC eateries such as Takorean, Dog Tag Bakery, Chaia, and Jrink grow as businesses. It also operates a distribution company that distributes nearly 400 products to nearly 200 retailers in the Mid-Atlantic region. Union Kitchen works with both businesses that are Members of the kitchen incubator and other local/regional food companies. Union Kitchen’s distribution business enables businesses to get their products on the shelves of local retailers and regional and national stores like Whole Foods and Yes! Organic.

Operating on a triple bottom line to “make it, move it, sell it,” accessibility and community impact have become central to Union Kitchen’s mission.

“We are focused on building successful food businesses through our operations in a thoughtful, conscientious manner,” shares Kelly McPharlin, Marketing Manager at Union Kitchen. “We define our success not just by the revenues and profits we create, but by the businesses we grow, the jobs we create, the economic impact we have, and the employment training we deliver.”

Union Kitchen Offerings

Union Kitchen Offerings

Union Kitchen partners with organizations like DC Central Kitchen and Project Empowerment to provide hiring opportunities, job placement, and training for those interested in culinary careers. Additionally, an important focus of the company is to lower the barrier of entry for minority and women-owned businesses in the food space.

Alongside membership and distribution resources, the company operates a grocery store selling products from member businesses. At Union Kitchen Grocery, you can purchase a variety of locally made products, in turn helping businesses create, contribute, and prosper in DC and beyond. Union Kitchen Grocery is located in Capitol Hill, with a second location opening in Shaw in 2017.

B Corps as Drivers for Change

In a report by The Brookings Institution, “[B Corps] set the gold standard for ‘good’ business and are driving behavior change in the businesses around them.” Threespot, Arcadia Power, and Union Kitchen are companies doing just that. To learn more about the B Corp movement and to discover businesses like the ones mentioned in this article, visit

Practitioner Profile: Amber Harris (B’02), Communications & Social Media Executive

Amber Harris

Amber Harris (B’02), Communications & Social Media Executive

Amber Harris (B’02) is a communications professional with more than 14 years experience in media, entertainment and technology, most recently serving as Vice President of Communications and Social Media at Discovery Communications.

Center for Social Impact Communication: Thanks for joining us today, Amber! Can you start off by describing your career path to us?

Amber Harris: After graduation from the McDonough School of Business with degrees in International Business and Marketing in 2002, I entered the media industry as an Executive Assistant at Discovery Communications. I was fortunate over the next 14 years to evolve with the industry and company, as I took on new roles that spanned a range of communications disciplines — from employee engagement and crisis communications to media relations and social strategy.

Most recently I oversaw PR strategy and execution for Discovery’s portfolio of digital enterprises, brands and investments as Vice President of Communications & Social Media. I also was responsible for the company’s corporate social strategy and engagement, having helped establish our in-house social team and expertise years earlier. Over the past two years, I championed and launched new consumer offerings in emerging media spaces, including Discovery VR, Discovery GO and web-native networks, Seeker and SourceFed. I have always enjoyed charting a course into the unknown and, by working on the digital frontlines of a global powerhouse like Discovery, I was fortunate to work with talented colleagues to blaze new trails in exciting areas such as virtual reality.

CSIC: Our students are working on master’s degrees in communications, marketing and journalism at Georgetown University. As a fellow Hoya, what is your best piece of advice for them? 

AH: I suppose this piece of advice could be applied to your studies, career and beyond: Don’t just embrace change. Do what you can to facilitate and accelerate it! Coming from the intersection of media, entertainment and technology, I have seen companies and individuals thrive by constantly asking “what’s next?” To do this, you have to be comfortable with uncertainty, setbacks and even failure, but I firmly believe that makes you a better professional, leader and person.

CSIC: You’re right, that’s applicable for just about any phase of life. You’ve had a lot of accomplishments so far, what career accomplishment are you most proud of and why?

AH: During my last year at Discovery, I had the honor of working with a smart, small and dedicated team to launch Discovery VR, an industry-leading virtual reality offering that attracted millions of consumers, top-tier partners and some of the biggest brands around (and continues to). Discovery VR allowed me to tap into my skills as a PR professional and my love and understanding of technology to develop a long-term strategy to establish a brand and drive value for the company…and who doesn’t love watching someone wow’ed by what you’re introducing?

On a personal and professional level, I also am extremely proud of the numerous CSR and pro bono projects I had a chance to participate in — from developing social toolkits for stakeholders to donating my time and talent to nonprofits. Of note, during Discovery’s second Creating Change initiative, I worked with a colleague to develop a social strategy for a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides programs and services aimed at reducing the impact of HIV/AIDS in the community. As a direct result of our work, the organization received a sizable grant to support their social strategy and outreach. It was rewarding to help them advance their work and to do so thanks to a company that is so committed to giving back.

CSIC: Those sound like incredible projects, Amber! What can someone do early in his/her social impact career to secure a position similar to yours?

AH: Join a company or organization you believe in, and raise your hand. If you shine, there is no doubt that colleagues will come to you with new opportunities and projects to grow your career; however, this does not absolve you from being your own advocate and championing the ideas you think are right for you and your company.

CSIC: And for those who are specifically interested in working in CSR communications, what skills should they focus on developing?

AH: While I don’t think any of these are exclusive to CSR communications, having passion (but not to the degree of blinding you), being a good partner and thinking creatively are key. You also need to be able to articulate your ideas and vision clearly, understand personal and professional motivations and secure buy-in from stakeholders.

CSIC: What is your go-to source to learn about communication trends?

AH: Perhaps its my business school background and resulting love of case studies, but I am always seeking out profiles on companies and leaders — whether an online video interview or a deep-dive book about the rise (or fall) of a company. However, the bulk of my information and insight comes from a list of professionals and publications I follow on Twitter, in addition to old-fashioned networking. When I see an organization having success or doing something that makes me pause, I usually find myself going down an Internet rabbit hole looking for more insight.

CSIC: Finally, do you have any suggestions for our students about getting a job at a large company, such as Discovery?

AH: Whether Discovery or another in-demand company, I can’t over-emphasize the value of networking…and well in advance of when you are looking to secure a position. Tap into your contacts to get an introduction — even if the contact is not in your field, and find someone who is open to a call or informational interview. This is the best way to gain deeper insight to an organization and its culture and to ensure you are in the consideration set before a position is even posted.

CSIC: Thank you so much, Amber, for sharing these great insights with us!

Design Thinking and Opportunities in Nonprofit Storytelling

by Upma Kapoor

Nonprofits and social impact organizations often emerge because they have a solution to a pervasive problem in our society. After focusing efforts on fundraising and scaling impact, storytelling and communications efforts often fall to the wayside. How can organizations built upon the foundation of problem-solving rebuild their communications framework to make their stories as good as new?

While the elements of a good story are timeless, the reboot in our framework requires a deeper, understanding of your audiences, especially their motivations and challenges, where they go to find out about your organization’s work, and what they want to know about your organization. At its core, the surprising reality is that the problem-solving used to start these nonprofit and social impact organizations is no different from resolving a storytelling challenge: you design your way out of it using design thinking.

What is design thinking?

Nonprofit and social impact professionals reading this may gawk at the notion of a Silicon Valley darling and private sector buzzword being adopted to navigate challenges, but these organizations have unknowingly adopted this discipline and methodology without realizing it.

Design thinking is a discipline grounded in navigating complex problems and creatively designing effective ideas to meet people’s needs. Consequently, this approach can empower nonprofits towards creatively navigating communications challenges by how they frame problems, identify effective solutions, and allow experience to drive your team’s actions and interactions.

How do I find my story with design thinking?

Step 1: Find the problem with your story

Design thinking is about finding market opportunity by looking into your problem or challenge, and framing it creatively to bring breakthrough innovation. When we are talking about stories, the first step is to identify the problem or opportunity with your story. For example, maybe the lead does not resonate with audiences, or maybe your story is shared on a blog that does not get a lot of eyeballs.

Here’s the reality: design thinking does not assume that you know the problem, and you do not want to start with a solution in mind. For instances like this, let data and your experiences carry you. For storytelling, data can help pinpoint the weaknesses of your hook or trajectory of your story.

Step 2: Reframe the problem

In design, reframing is key; in storytelling, it allows your organization to examine and reconsider the focus of the story.  Are visitors responding to your call-to-actions?  Are you prioritizing your online visitors on how they fit into your story? Does the online visitor relate to your story?

Stories and design thinking are alike in the shared power of communicating experience. What experience are you providing your supporters when you share your story?

When you aim to create for experience–and a unique, human-centered one–you outperform in part because you are building empathy for your readers and users. Understanding what your followers need and are looking for is key to creating a good experience. Reframing the problem of your story brings you closer to identifying and building towards the experience.

Step 3: Ideate and Prototype

Based on the insights you have gathered about your problem and audiences in steps one and two, you should be able to define the problem and begin building the solution. When it comes to design thinking and innovation, we lean towards building a prototype—or physical product—that helps us deeply understand and define the solution we are leaning towards building.

When it comes to storytelling, we are hesitant to make changes after having a legacy trajectory.  Design thinking pushes or the opposite: experiment and test what works quickly; tailor your story to include strategic elements of storytelling, and put it to the test.

Testing is imperative to ideation when it comes to storytelling. If it fails, it fails fast. Failing fast means that you and your organization can revise and and re-examine your approach, and rebuild something better. Rewriting the story does not mean overhauling the entire story altogether; instead, we are empowered to consider medium, delivery, and character to evaluate story success.

Step 4: Test and Evaluate Feedback

Strategic nonprofit and social impact storytelling requires measuring meaningful engagement to promote and advocate for an organization’s mission.

With design thinking, testing and evaluating feedback for each story helps nonprofit observe and uncover wants and needs about audiences that they were previously unaware of. This ongoing discovery does not go away, but instead allows organizations to be curious and find patterns in what makes their stories work and with which audiences. You are always asking yourself what success looks like within your organization, why not figure out what success looks like for your audiences?

What’s next?

Design thinking can be liberating for some organizations’ storytelling tactics and is limitless in growth. The hallmark of design thinking success for nonprofits and social impact organizations such as the San Francisco Opera lies in the ongoing nature of the work. Organizations don’t stop telling stories, so why should their processes? Regularly identifying new ways to build empathy and engage new audiences can revitalize your day-to-day work and tell your stories anew.

7 Lessons I Learned From Founding My Own Nonprofit

by Camila Martelo

Founding a nonprofit was never in my plans, but once I found a cause I felt passionate for, I could not resist. In 2014, I met a group of kids from vulnerable communities that despite facing many difficulties, always showed up for their boxing practice. No shoes, no gloves, no wraps, these kids fought with passion and motivation to find a better future.

These little champions have since become the motivation for everything I do as a person and as a professional. In order to help them, I decided to start my own nonprofit organization called Golden Kids Boxing Club. Our mission is to give children from low income households in Cartagena, Colombia,  the opportunity to learn the sport of boxing while learning values that will help them fulfill their dreams in life.

Golden Kids Boxing ClubThe journey has not been easy, and while I still have a lot to learn, my experiences have taught me very important lessons that I apply to my nonprofit, communications and PR profession:

  1. Break barriers. You practice boxing? Isn’t it dangerous? “A girl shouldn’t be throwing punches around.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, let’s’ just say I wouldn’t need to organize fundraisers very often. Break as many barriers as you can and make sure people are aware of it. This has allowed me to be remembered more, as an individual, and as an organization. People like unconventional stories, if you give them one, they are probably going to remember you the next time they wish to make a donation.
  1. Always ask, never assume. For a birthday celebration, I bought a chocolate cake that I thought the kids would enjoy. After noticing the children barely touched it, one of the kids explained that they’ve never had chocolate cake before and disliked the taste. My jaw dropped. I had fallen into the common mistake of assuming what the community needed, but not asking them what they wanted. Even if you feel like you know the community you work with pretty well, get into the habit of asking. Questions will make your job easier, and if you work with children, much more enjoyable.
  1. Communication not only shares, it empowers. After running PR campaign to gain media visibility for the organization, several kids expressed to me how important they felt because it was their story that was being shared. They felt special, empowered, and were asking for more. When planning a PR or communication campaign, think about how this will help empower the people your organization helps. After a PR campaign, take time to conduct a discussion session with the people you help to share thoughts and feelings on how they felt before, during, and after the process.
Jesus was invited to a national talent TV show to display his boxing skills.

Jesus was invited to a national talent TV show to display his boxing skills.

  1. Everything has been covered, pitch effectively. Journalists have seen and heard pretty much everything that is out there. When trying to find people who will cover your story, target journalists that will more likely have interest in your cause and motivate them to visit you. In my case, the obvious thing to do was talk to sport journalists. I decided to try something different and contacted reporters who I knew led and active lifestyle and invited them to join one of our trainings. Instead of being a normal media coverage for them, they had the opportunity to experience the nonprofit’s work first hand and enjoy a workout session.
Aldair was very proud to see his face on a national newspaper article.

Aldair was very proud to see his face on a national newspaper article.

  1. Words matter, positive words inspire positive actions. The children I work with come from very difficult environments. They constantly hear phrases or words like “You can’t”, “There is no money”, and “NO”. While working with them, I have established a positive communication approach, where kids are encouraged to speak in positive terms. When you change the way people talk, you change the way they think, ultimately impacting how they act. Use positive words in your work environment, this will change the way people, especially children, view their lives and their possibilities.
  1. Creativity is key, but don’t overthink it. We all want to come up with the next big idea. Sometimes, due to time and resources, it is just not possible. I constantly dream of creating a fundraiser that will solve all of the needs we have as an organization, but unfortunately, action gets resources, just thinking about it won’t. Don’t stress if your fundraising idea is not new or creative, if an idea works well to reach a key public and gather donations, that is perfectly fine. Sometimes the best brainstorming exercises occur when you are executing a simpler idea!
  1. Talk about it, a lot. My mom always taught me not to brag, but when running a non-profit, I have to disagree. While I don’t brag about it, I do take advantage of every opportunity I get to talk about my work because you never know who might be willing to help or share some good contacts or resources.Passion is contagious! Share personal experiences, ask for help, and invite people to join. During flights, during coffee runs, and of course, social media, share your non-profit’s work. Some people might not have the time to volunteer, or money to donate, but they could have a good contact at a company or store that could benefit your work. Every conversation you have has potential to become an advantage for your nonprofit.

    Social media is a great way to expose your work, plus, kids love it!

    Social media is a great way to expose your work, plus, kids love it!

Working with a non-profit is a challenge, but using your knowledge and the tools you have at hand to help others is worth the effort. The key is trying new things and finding out what works best for your specific organization or cause and what does not.

I hope my lessons prove useful, and if you have any questions or ideas, be sure to reach out! In the meanwhile, I invite you to check out and support my latest fundraising campaign!