What the nonprofit sector can learn from commencement speeches

A crowd of graduates throw their graduation caps into the airEvery year around this time, I tune into YouTube to listen to smart and talented actors, politicians, and comedians share stories and give advice to the graduating class of the year. Even before I graduated from high school, I’ve been watching commencement addresses. Yes, I’m kind of a commencement geek who loves to get goose bumps during these inspiring speeches!   

Hillary Clinton, Will Ferrell, Robert De Niro, Octavia Spencer, and Helen Mirren have given some of the strongest commencement speeches so far this year.

So what binds a moving and insightful commencement speech, a college graduate, and a young nonprofit professional together? I believe it’s the quest to figure out how to lend one’s skills, passions, and interests to build a more just and equitable world. In other words, what can we do do to make a difference in a deeply divided and broken world—or as Robert Di Niro put it in his speech at NYU, “a tragic dumbass comedy.” 

Whether you’re a recent college graduate or work at a nonprofit, times of uncertainty, vast change, and great stress can be common. So pep talks, jokes, and advice from a diverse set of successful individuals can be just the pick-me-up that’s needed to build strong bridges into the future.

Below are three 2017 commencement speeches with a great nonprofit takeaway!

"Set aside space to make space" – Oprah Winfrey

On Saturday, May 13, Oprah Winfrey gave a genuine commencement address at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. Near the end of the speech she said:

You’ve got to find a way to continually find a way to give back to yourself…You want your cup to be so full it’s running over so you have enough to offer others. If you do not have something – a spiritual practice – maybe it’s music or dancing or just time for yourself to nurture your own spirit. You’ll run out. Your tank will become empty. You will burn out and not have anything left to give. So set aside space every day to make space for that aspect of your being which no other single activity you engage in.

It’s difficult to avoid the impact of a constantly moving and fast-paced culture where we’re often called to respond in the moment. Oprah isn’t necessarily suggesting slowing down. She’s suggesting we find ways to nurture our souls so we can bring our full selves to work everyday by finding a spiritual practice. Our colleagues, organizations, and the community require that of us if we’re going to be leaders who are going to make a difference.

"A good life is about being personal." – Joe Biden

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addressed the graduating seniors at Harvard’s Senior Class Day ceremony on May 24. Over the course of his career, he’s had the opportunity to meet every world leader in the last 42 years and had this to say about his observations about those who managed to find success and happiness:

Those who find success and happiness understand that a good life is about being personal. It’s about being engaged. It’s about being there for a friend or colleague when they’re injured in an accident… It’s about being personal. Resist the temptation to let network be a verb that saps the personal away that blinds you to the person right in front of you their hopes, their fears, their burdens. Resist the temptation to ascribe motive to someone’s actions because you really don’t know their motive. It only gets in the way of ever reaching a consensus or reaching progress. Build real relations even with people with whom you vehemently disagree. You’ll not only be happier. I guarantee you’ll be more successful.

In the nonprofit sector, I’ve met and worked with many individuals who put themselves into their work. Speaking for myself, it’s so easy to roll up my sleeves and get lost in responding to emails, planning the next meeting, and finishing to-do lists. In all the work, we cannot lose sight of the most important part of the equation: people. Let’s be clear here. Biden isn’t suggesting that we network to fill up our desk drawer with business cards; he’s asking that we develop authentic and trusting relationships. We rely on one another and need each other. We, and as an extension, our work, become stronger and more meaningful, respectfully, when we truly engage the personal.

"Treat people like people" – Dame Helen Mirren

During her commencement address at Tulane University, Dame Helen Mirren shared rules with the graduating class that she picked up during her life. She calls them "Helen’s Top 5 Rules for a Happy Life." Her second rule is to treat people like people:

So, remember that every single person, whether they have dominion over your life or not, deserves equal respect and generosity.

Okay, nonprofit family, this might seem like a no-brainer but it’s important that we remind ourselves of this one from time to time. At my organization, we’ve developed some ground rules that will help us improve our office culture and one of those ground rules is "always assume the best intentions in your colleagues." As Helen Mirren suggests, everyone deserves equal respect and generosity, even if they suggest an idea or process you don’t necessarily agree with.

Side-note: Helen Mirren continues her speech talking about how everyone should be a feminist and it’s pretty great!

You don’t need to be a commencement geek to tune into a few speeches from time to time. They might make you laugh, spark an idea, or give you some much-needed advice that could help you approach your work with a new perspective.

Please Note: The YNPN Twin Cities blog is an opportunity for YNPN-TC members (and others) to share their opinions about issues important to young nonprofit professionals. Each blog is written by the individual author, and the views expressed may not be shared by all YNPN members.

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