Nonprofit Change Agent: A Profile of Joleen Ong

Nonprofit Change Agent Joleen Ong

Joleen Ong

How would you describe your life’s work?
I’m a strong believer in the nonprofit sector’s potential to bring about social change, and the role of communications and technology to make this happen. So to describe my life’s work thus far, it’d be: to change attitudes with empathy and through shared learning.

In the past decade, I’ve been part of initiatives such as mobilizing students to take action against the war in Iraq, improving campus purchasing practices to integrate Fair Trade products and — through the RAGS Project in India — improving the lives of garment factory workers. I believe that attitudes must change in order to create broad social change. None of this is possible without tapping into the shared learning experiences of others.

Why does it matter?
Look at the potential of what good communications can do! It can inspire action through empowerment, and facilitate real social change by reframing the way we look at things. Like the international campaign inspired by Angela Davis’ imprisonment, or Howard Zinn’s reframing of history with “A People’s History of the U.S.” It’s not a coincidence that they were strong communicators who came from a place of empathy.

And look at how these elements connect to the work of nonprofit organizations. There is a difference between a well-intentioned organization, and an organization that does truly remarkable work. The remarkable ones are harmonized internally and focused externally. You’d be surprised though how many are caught in a dysfunctional web of conflicting egos and power struggles. It’s incredible. Just look at how much good can be accomplished when the mission is the core focus.

How did you come to do this work?
It all starts with my parents’ story. They grew up with very limited means in Malaysia, and were beneficiaries of development interventions, such as the Peace Corps. They were able to become successful from virtually nothing but self-motivation, beating the odds that would be typically expected of people whose ancestors were subsistence fishermen and farmers. I never take their story for granted, they’re my heroes.

All of this underscores why I do what I do. My parents say they were lucky, but to look at it broadly — social change initiatives, in a way, are all about creating the right conditions for people to make their own luck. To tip the scales in recognition of those invisible obstacles.

What would you say is your most significant achievement in the past two years?
An article I wrote about sweatshop conditions, “Seven Reasons Why Sweatshops Still Persist,” was published in February in the textbook, “Annual Editions: Technologies, Social Media, and Society.”

The article was the culmination of some of the core learnings from my previous position at Social Accountability International. It was an achievement for me because I have long tried to explain “why there are still sweatshops” in a concise way. Finally it happened through this article, and I’m glad that students will be able to study it.

What’s next for you?
My next step just started. I recently became the Marketing & Publications Director for NTEN in Portland, Oregon. Talk about shared learning! With a membership of over 50,000 nonprofit professionals, NTEN is the largest community of nonprofit professionals who use technology to meet their organizations’ missions. And that’s not just me pitching. It’s really something that should be recognized. It’s been inspiring to connect with so many nonprofits. It’s like being part of a laboratory for social change.

How do you want to be remembered?
As someone who helped to mainstream empathy in nonprofit leadership — who helped tip the scales, and helped others make their own luck.

4 thoughts on “Nonprofit Change Agent: A Profile of Joleen Ong

  1. Bonnie-

    Thank you so much for showcasing Joleen! She is an incredible asset to NTEN and I’m so glad she joined the team. I’m also inspired every day by her passion and focus on ensuring that every message, every campaign, even every blog post is an example or resource to others so that we can continue to serve and support this sector through everything we do.

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