Top 10 TED Talks for Nonprofit Leaders

5 min
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profile picture of Classy blog contributor Will Schmidt
Will Schmidt

TED believes in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives, and the world. That likely sounds familiar to nonprofits and professionals across the social sector who operate with a very similar mindset. As such, it makes TED Talks a wellspring of inspiration and motivation for nonprofits who want to strengthen their strategies, inspire communities, and make a lasting impact on the world.

Below, we rounded up the top 10 TED Talks we think can help you overcome apathetic attitudes, refine your leadership tactics, inspire action, and so much more.

1. How to Start a Movement

In his talk, Derek Sivers shows a three-minute video that demonstrates how quickly a movement can go from one leader, to two followers, to an entire community of people standing behind one common cause. The key to generating this kind of momentum is to lead by example and show newcomers how to join in on the action the right way. Then, once they know the way, they’ll evangelize your movement and educate newcomers as they come streaming in.

Once someone decides to support your nonprofit, in any capacity, send them a welcome email with educational resources about your nonprofit. Describe your mission, explain your goals, showcase your popular programs, and teach them how to share your cause with their networks.

2. How to Make a Profit While Making a Difference

For-profit businesses are in a unique position to create powerful, impactful change through corporate social responsibility programs and other similar initiatives. Audrey Choi tells us that we play an important role in showing them the best way to get involved. This is most relevant for nonprofits when it comes to choosing corporate partners. Show them there’s so much more they can do beyond simply writing a check and donating it to your organization, like:

  • Activating their staff in a peer-to-peer fundraising campaign
  • Sponsoring your annual events
  • Sending appeals on your behalf to their audience
  • Providing a matching gift on Giving Tuesday

3. The Antidote to Apathy

What keeps people from getting involved with your nonprofit? Is it apathy, ignorance, laziness, or selfishness? According to Dave Meslin, it’s none of those things. Instead, he identifies seven barriers that keep people from taking action, even among those who care deeply about a cause.

As you work to engage supporters in your work, ask yourself what potential barriers might be holding them back from getting involved. Is your website easy to read and navigate? Do you have clear, concise copy that describes your mission? Are there visible calls to action for people to donate or fundraise? If you can anticipate barriers like these, you can remove them before they ever become a roadblock.

4. How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Almost all nonprofits want to inspire their supporters to take action in some capacity, like making a donation or signing up for a weekly newsletter. To help elicit these desired actions, Simon Sinek says to start with a few important questions that help define an inspiring message:

  • What’s your purpose?
  • What’s your cause?
  • What’s your belief?
  • Why does your organization exist?
  • Why do you get out of bed every morning?
  • Why should anyone care?

Remember, people don’t support what you do. They support why you do it. Share your mission-driven “why” with your audience across channels like social media, email, campaign pages, paid digital advertisements, and direct mail.

5. What Nonprofits Can Learn From Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola has a global network of marketers and distributors who ensure that even remote communities have access to their products. On stage, Melinda Gates explores how they’ve leveraged access to data, local entrepreneurial spirits, and captivating marketing to spread their products across the globe. Their model is highly applicable to nonprofits, who also distribute on a large scale, often globally as well.

Identify champions on the ground who you can empower to evangelize your cause and educate other people in their direct community about your organization. Be bold with your marketing messages and don’t assume that people will want what you offer simply because you offer it. Finally, cultivate a data-driven mindset that helps you make informed and educated decisions about your path forward.

6. What It Takes to Be a Great Leader

Roselinde Torres has spent 25 years of her professional career observing what constitutes great leadership. As she says, there are three questions that both define and highlight great leadership in today’s modern world:

Effective leaders make their organizations and employees better by creating an atmosphere that encourages and promotes professional growth. If you want to cultivate strong leadership qualities in yourself, and those within your nonprofit who want to lead, be positive, fair, trustworthy, appreciative, committed, organized, responsive, and motivating.

7. How to Motivate People to Do Good for Others

MIT research scientist Erez Yoeli thinks that harnessing someone’s desire to be seen as generous can motivate them to get involved with a cause and do good in the world. Further, small changes that can give people more credit for doing good, like showcasing your most active and dedicated supporters to the community, can make a really big difference.

Consider what your nonprofit can do to increase the observability of someone’s good deed, eliminate excuses for not participating, and communicating clear expectations for what their involvement includes. For example, make it clear to your peer-to-peer fundraisers that if they’re one of the top three fundraisers on a campaign, you’ll feature their story in an upcoming newsletter.

8. The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong

Almost everyone involved in the social sector is familiar with the “overhead” discussion. In this TED talk, Dan Pallotta takes a bold and passionate stance on the fact that nonprofits are rewarded for reducing overhead versus being rewarded for the work they’re able to accomplish. He encourages everyone to ask nonprofits what the scale of their dreams are instead of what the rate of their overhead is.

To help change the status quo and flip the narrative, ask yourself and your team what your Apple, Google, or Amazon sized dreams are. Then, drill down and figure out how you can measure progress toward those dreams, what resources you need to make them come true, and how to communicate that impact back to the world.

9. How to Buy Happiness

What happens when you give someone $20 and ask them to spend it on themselves? What if you asked them to instead spend it on someone else? This is a little social experiment present Michael Norton like to run, and he finds that money truly does buy happiness when you spend it on someone else. How do you shift the conversation from “How can I spend my money on myself?” to “What can I do with my money to benefit other people?”

The answer may lie in creative marketing tactics. For example, you can send a donor survey that asks your audience how they personally feel after donating to charity. Take your responses from the survey, compile them into a visually pleasing infographic, and promote the findings across your different channels.

10. Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen!

Often, your beneficiaries and people on the ground in communities you serve have an intimate connection to the issues affecting them. For Ernesto Sirolli, it’s crucial that nonprofits who want to help listen to these groups instead of telling them what to do. A respect for the nuances of the culture, language, and values they’re embedded in can go a long way toward making a lasting impact.

Make it a priority to partner with beneficiaries: ask questions, invite their opinions, and pay attention to the insights they have. These are also the people who will be carrying your mission and message back to their networks, which is important if you want to mobilize an entire group of people around your work. Finally, your beneficiaries will still be living and working in their community after you depart: a true partnership ensures your impact doesn’t evaporate.

Across these TED Talks there are countless lessons for nonprofits to learn in areas like leadership, inspiring action, fueling the good in others, and so much more. Let the passion of these speakers invigorate your own work as you continue to make an impact that changes the world. If there are any other TED Talks that inspire you, but aren’t included on this list, please share them in the comments below.


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