What nonprofits and Coca-Cola can learn from each other

You know, running a blog business sounds really cool. And it is: I often find myself smiling randomly, just because I was thinking about all the great things I am able to do. But on the other hand, there is much that I still have to learn and practice. In this article I like to show you what nonprofits and Coca-Cola can learn from each otherand why that lesson to learn from your opposite is so valuable for each of us.

Thought provoking

Melinda Gates makes a case that’s at least provocative: What can nonprofits learn from mega-corporations like Coca-Cola? In this TedTalk she arguments that the strategies that Coke uses could work for distributing health care, vaccinations, sanitation, and even condoms too.

It’s and interesting case and I totally got why Melinda used Coca-Cola as the leading example for this topic. The brand is a power-house, gained a lot of valuable knowledge about doing business during the last decades now and it’s been considered as the strongest brand out there too.

I mean, when I travel, no matter how remote my final destination, Coke seems to be everywhere. Which begs the question – how does Coca-Cola make its way to these remote places?

Gates noticed this during one of her trips to the developing world too, and so she decided to find a way to apply the lessons to serve the social good.

To me, it’s an fascinating talk in which Melinda Gates makes interesting connections. The purpose of Coca Cola to reach people all over the world – even in developing countries relates to nonprofits as well. Reaching and connecting with people in need on the remote places on earth is a goal that nonprofits strive for and Coke is already doing a pretty good job in that. 

But can it work? Can for-profit models, especially those with a budget like Coca-Cola, make sense as nonprofit strategies?  

3 takeaways

Melinda Gates shares 3 lessons in her talk on TED, for nonprofits to be learned from Coca-Cola. Here were go:

  • Take real-time data and use it to improve
    One thing Coke does well is analyzing its sales trends and data in real-time. This feedback loops immediately back into their product and measures their progress as they go.  In nonprofits, evaluation of data typically comes at the end of a project, or the end of their fiscal year as they prepare to show their impact to their supporters. Nonprofits can learn from Coke and make a plan to analyze their data as they go. This strategy will work to boost program impacts, as nonprofits will keep abreast of trends in their service areas and meet their community where they are needed.
  • Tap into local entrepreneurial talent
    Coca-Cola has found a way to employ locals in nearly every area of the world, which helps their brand reach an expanded audience that they wouldn’t otherwise reach. Nonprofit strategies should include a plan for leadership to keep abreast of local trends in their areas of service. Also, they need a plan to engage locals as employees, volunteers, donors, partners, etc. Locals know how to reach their neighbors; thus, can help  your nonprofit expand its service base.
  • Aspirational and localized marketing
    People who want Coca-Cola associate the product with the life they want to live. This means that Coke creates localized and aspirational marketing campaigns that speak to each communities ideals and values. On the other hand, nonprofit marketing strategies focus on avoidance- not aspiration. For example, wash your hands, avoid illness. Nonprofit marketing teams need to listen to what people in the community you serve want, and market to that desire. Also, stop focusing on doom and gloom! Yes, your nonprofit is solving critical issues plaguing our world; however, by creating a space for celebration and unity in your marketing campaign, more people will be drawn to support your work.

Learning from your opposite in business

First of all, I find the talk on TED interesting from a business and philanthropic point of view. Melinda Gates has shown that Coca-Cola uses interesting and unique ways to reach people in the remote places on earth. And that there are differences in the strategies that both organizations use in general. Although Coke is super commercial and a whole different kind of business, those unique abilities are at least meaningful to look at.

Moreover, I find that paying attention to organizations that are your opposite is a way to help yourself grow. And even from a business point of view it may be helpful to zoom in to the unique abilities of other brands. That is why I like the TedTalk so much. It would bring major opportunities to the table, if we would allow ourselves to think out of the box. And look at the ones in which we see ourselves the least, although you might have things in common.

Consequently, it wouldn’t be constructive to stick the label “too commercial” on a company like Coca-Cola. It would give nonprofits the permission to say: “well, that’s not our cup of tea. We don’t have to look at that because we are not like them”. Wouldn’t it be a growth mindset to say: “we want to learn from the unique abilities that this company has and incorporate these into the mission of what we want to accomplish in the world”.

I mean, the strategies that Coca-Cola used to become the valuable brand that she is today may benefit nonprofits as well to learn from others. to save lives and make the world a better place.

Learning from people

While these applications about building meaningful and purposeful businesses and nonprofits are true and insightful, I find the talk on TED from Melinda has another potential application.

Learning from how others are dealing with challenges in business might be meaningful for how you do things yourself. But this overall lesson of learning from others might work on a personal level as well. Let me explain the importance of learning from others on a personal level, and why the Opposite of it, namely comparing yourself to others based on labels and judgments, can be in quite in your way to grow.

Let’s take from example something like comparing yourself to others. I mean, we are all guilty of comparing ourselves to others sometimes. In this funny book: How to be Miserable, 40 strategies you already use, Randy Paterson writes how comparing yourself with others is one of the things that makes peoples lives miserable.

Many of the thoughts that we have hold ourselves back from a life of contentment. We use labels, judgments and comparisons, while they don’t necessarily make us happy. We keep focusing on the negative, dwelling on what we can’t change, isolating ourselves from friends and loved ones, eating junk food, or overindulging in alcohol. Those thoughts may limit the quality of our lives.

The subjective side of labels

In the book Nonviolent communication by Marshall Rosenberg I came across this poem written by Ruth Bebermeyer. The way she explains labels stuck with me ever since:

I’ve never seen a lazy man;
I’ve seen a man who never ran
while I watched him, and I’ve seen
a man who sometimes slept between
lunch and dinner, and who’d stay
at home upon a rainy day,
but he was not a lazy man.
Before you call me crazy,
think, was he a lazy man or
did he just do things we label “lazy”?

I’ve never seen a stupid kid;
I’ve seen a kid who sometimes did
things I didn’t understand
or things in ways I hadn’t planned;
I’ve seen a kid who hadn’t seen
the same places where I had been,
but he was not a stupid kid.
Before you call him stupid,
think, was he a stupid kid or did he
just know different things than you did?

I’ve looked as hard as I can look
but never ever seen a cook;
I saw a person who combined
ingredients on which we dined,
A person who turned on the heat
and watched the stove that cook the meat –

I saw those things but not a cook.
Tell me when you’re looking,
is it a cook you see or is it someone
doing things that we call cooking?

What some of us call lazy
some call tired or easy-going,
what some of us call stupid
some just call a different knowing,
so I’ve come to the conclusion,
it will save us all confusion
if we don’t mix up what we can see
with what is our opinion.
Because you may, I want to say also;
I know that’s only my opinion.

I love the poem because it shows how easy it is to think in terms of judgments and labels, while you actually don’t know who you have in front of you.

Not only that, judgements can also be either positive and negative. You may classify a person “pretty” and “successful”, but yourself as “indecisive” and ugly. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day those labels are very subjective and comparing yourself with others through the labels that you make, can be quite in your way of becoming fully present.

Broadening my perspective

I know that I have some unique abilities that serve me well. But that has not always been my life. When starting a blog business in the online industry, I knew for sure that I wanted to do that. But there were also times that I saw myself as too introvert and with not enough knowledge for the entrepreneurial work. Because I didn’t believe that you can get there without having both, I labeled myself as “unable” to become an entrepreneur, or something like that. And once you label yourself that way, things become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As a result of that label that I had stuck on myself, I started to live by that belief. I started to have a strong focus on improving my skills and knowledge, and kept spending my time to reading about entrepreneurship. From setting up businesses to people’s visions about leadership. I also spent some time with people and read some other books (mostly self-help) that helped me realize the limiting believe of that mantra.

As time past by I came to the conclusion that having an extra-vert character and enough knowledge of business were both part of how I thought a good entrepreneur should look like. And that although I was longing for it, there would never come a moment in which I would be satisfied of all the knowledge that I had gained.

Moreover, I had also to admit that if I had a good look around me, there were ofcourse enough examples of introverted entrepreneurs who weren’t shouting from the rooftops to promote their businesses. Take for example serial-entrepreneur Richard Branson, who is a self-called introvert. He wrote this blog about being an introvert in business: Even introverts can become great entrepreneurs.

I found myself in a place where, in some way, these thoughts distracted me from the real doing. I came to realize that I needed to change my perspective on things.

Growth mindset

Whether that label of me being a bad entrepreneur was created by me or my environment, for sure it was implanted in my brain and it affected my way of thinking and operating. But I don’t think that I’m defined by my introvert character or the amount of knowledge that I have. I do think that we are all human, with basic needs, living through unique abilities.  

Being able to see those unique abilities in yourself, that is what I would call a growth mindset. It enables you to think: well I may not have this, but I do have that. And being an imperfect person makes me proud because I know where I came from. Learning to see those unique abilities in others as well, can give you the opportunity to learn from others and use them in a way that it can improve your life for the better.

What I now know about myself, is that I have some unique abilities that serve me well. I’m a great listener, I’m always open to learn new things and I also have a great sense of what’s really going on in peoples lives. Those abilities serve me in achieving the things that I want to do. And because I am not afraid of admitting that I’m not the most dominant person, I’ll find people who are better than me in doing certain things. That’s how you lift each other up. Let’s see how I am now… A couple of years further I own this website and turned it into a real brand. And I absolutely LOVE it!

learn from others


So what nonprofits can learn from Coca Cola? Whether we’re talking about people or companies. Having a focus on the things that you can learn from your opposite in order to improve your life or the company’s life, can be incredibly useful. That’s what a growth mindset has to offer you. 

It can do no harm to think about what this growth mindset can do for you and your life. Maybe there’s something that you can change for the better.

What do you think?  Can nonprofits learn anything from Coca-Cola and the corporate world?  Would these strategies be successful outside the clinical healthcare or global development sectors?  If so, do we have enough resources to implement them?  Or, how can we scale them to something that’s doable locally?  Finally, can strategies like these be used to generate additional resources, such as volunteers or in-kind support, when funding is limited?  

For now, you may have become interested in the Tedtalk about Coca-Cola and Non-profits. I’m not gonna give you any spoilers, so just dive into this thoughtful talk.

Talk about what nonprofits can learn from Coca Cola

Did you like this story about learning from others? Head over to more life lessons if you like:

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