TED and Volunteerism: What a Shoe Wielding Firefighter Can Teach You About Recruiting and Managing Volunteers

TED: Ideas worth spreadingIn this series of blog posts, we’ll be looking at different TEDTalks and what nonprofit volunteer managers can learn from them.

What is TED?

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas. ( The “TED” stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design.”) Twice a year, TED holds a conference that features the latest in thought leadership on a variety of topics. The gist of the conference is this: A speaker is given a set amount of time to talk about absolutely anything. Talks have included subjects from deafness in the military to using humor for social change to showcasing a robot that flies like a seagull.

Currently there are upwards of 900 talks online, with new videos uploaded every week. The TED talks database is kind of like YouTube but without the videos of cats and teenagers doing strange things.

Instead, it’s filled with today’s thought leaders presenting on their research and experiences. So on your next coffee break, think about forgoing the YouTube video of kittens meowing at each other and watching a TED talk instead.

Why should you, as a nonprofit professional, watch TED talks? The material in TED talks features the latest insights on technology, politics, humanitarianism, and other topics. Learning about human rights? Listen to a talk from an individual who escaped the Khmer Rouge. Does your nonprofit focus on sustainability and the environment? Watch a video on generating power from windowpanes. Do you run an organization that focuses on art? Watch a video on how to rethink creativity. In order to maximize the impact of your organization, you need to know the direction our world is heading. Listening to TED speakers is one great way of doing that.

The Firefighter’s Story

For our inaugural TED and Volunteerism blog post, we look at a personal story of a volunteer firefighter and how sharing stories like his can help maintain your current volunteer set and recruit new ones.


By day. Mark Bezos is senior vice president for development and communications for a poverty fighting nonprofit aptly named Robin Hood. By night he is a local volunteer firefighter. In this TED talk, Mark reflects on his experience working on his first fire.

He realized that he had misaligned his motivations when he first became a volunteer firefighter. He wanted to be the hero — he wanted to save the dog, not get a pair of shoes. But as he learned, volunteering isn’t all about heroism. The result is a story that boils down to the very basis for the existence of volunteering — to allow one human being to give kindness to another.

TED Takeaway Lessons

This video is a reminder to appreciate your volunteers and to engage with them individually on a regular basis. When looking at your organization, also take a look at your volunteers. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back from the bigger picture and remind yourself that your volunteers are individual people, who have their own reasons to volunteer. Take the time to recognize them as individuals.

Each volunteer has their own story — their own reasons to start volunteering, as well as their own insights while volunteering. Have you talked to your volunteers? Not just a “Hey, how are you doing? You’re doing a good job” but a real conversation, asking volunteers to reflect with you on their experiences, particularly the ones who keep coming back.

Regularly interacting and engaging with your current volunteers will help you keep them in the long run. Consider setting aside an hour every week or so for volunteers to check in with you, or set up meetings with volunteers so you can speak one-on-one with them. If your organization takes care of its current volunteers, you’ll attract more potential volunteers who want to work in that environment.

Collect volunteers’ stories. Write them down or record them. Display them online where current and potential volunteers can see, such as on your website, blog, or YouTube site. Take a couple great quotes and put them in a prominent position on your recruitment materials. Individual stories like these not only build community within your own organization, but add color to your branding and your recruitment strategies.