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Marcia Stepanek

Lecturer; Founder and CEO, Brand Stories, Inc.

Personal Statement

Some 25 years ago, just after the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square ended in a spray of violence and live fire from government tanks that killed untold thousands, a Chinese colleague of mine — a fellow journalist working with me in Beijing at the time — advised his fellow writers to “be like water.” He was quoting a proverb that urged patience and persistence in the face of towering obstacles. Water, he explained, can seep through and around even the most imposing walls to get to the other side. I think of him often now in my work here at Columbia teaching digital media strategy, visual media, and the emergence of data-informed nonprofit leadership. Digital media is “the water” of our cause activism and philanthropy today, the source of new data and power among citizens to create change in society, and a critical tool for nonprofit leaders seeking to improve and scale their impact beyond traditional communities and walls. I am also passionate about the power of stories to move hearts and minds to collective action; I love teaching other professionals how to achieve social change by harnessing the technologies that support it.


Marcia Stepanek is founder and CEO of Brand Stories, a strategic media, marketing, and communications consultancy that helps organizations convey and scale their social impact. She also is an award-winning journalist, digital/visual media strategist, and author of the forthcoming book, Swarms: The Rise of the Digital Anti-Establishment—about the evolving power and influence of social networks to pervasively reshape business, society, and the nonprofit sector. A former John S. Knight Fellow in New Media at Stanford University, she has worked at the intersection of digital media, technology, and social change for more than 20 years and has held executive leadership positions at major corporations in the media and publishing industries, leading editorial teams for top media organizations including Hearst, BusinessWeek, Knight-Ridder, and Ziff-Davis Media. Before coming to Columbia, she also taught and developed courses in digital media strategy, network leadership, storytelling for social impact, nonprofit marketing, data measurement, evaluation, and revision, and social media at New York University and was a senior academic advisor to NYU’s Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising. Earlier in her career, Stepanek served as an investigative reporter and editor for a variety of national publications, and was Founding Editor-in-Chief of Contribute, the first magazine to cover the rise of online philanthropy and digital activism.

Stepanek is an expert in media technologies and digital/visual media strategy and is an in-demand speaker internationally on the evolution of digital networks and crowds, immersive media platforms, social networks and data-driven innovations in philanthropy. Her thought leadership and writing have appeared in The New York TimesThe Huffington PostWIRED, MSNBC, National Public Radio, NewsdayContribute, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, among others.

At Brand Stories, Stepanek and her team have led communications strategy engagements and narrative media workshops for a range of diverse organizations including UNICEF, MicVice News, The Foundation Center, China Institute, Doctors Without Borders, the U.S. District Court (Eastern District of New York), Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Greater Boston Food Bank, Hearst, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Living Cities, Verizon, the philanthropy arm of Credit Suisse, and New York University. She has received a variety of awards for her journalism work, including a George Polk Award and a National Press Club Award for Washington Correspondence, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and a World Technology Network Award for media and journalism. 


  • NOPM PS5160: Communications and Marketing for Nonprofits
  • NOPM PS5201: The Wired Nonprofit: Networks and Narratives 


  • M.S., University of Illinois
  • B.S., Northern Illinois University