LIVE: Karla Williams

“I think this was a setup,” began Karla Williams, addressing the emerging theme of this year’s TEDxCharlotte. “Holy cow! If I were your age, and I was sitting in this audience, whatever age you are, I’d be thinking ‘This is a very big world, how am I going to find that place, if I haven’t found it by now?'”

The theme is action for social change. And for Williams, the big idea is higher civic engagement in the non-profit sector of the Charlotte community. Williams is a passionate champion for the non-profit world.

According to Williams, there are 1.5 million non-profits in the United States, 100,000 in North Carolina, and 4,000 in Charlotte alone. With so many to choose from, how do you decide where to participate?

For Williams, the answer comes from your personal passions and even frustrations. “Every time I got sick and tired, every time I got mad, it propelled me to do something else,” said Williams.

She shared her own experience of discovering, at age 14, that her father was having an affair. She rounded up her siblings and acted to move them out of the home. Her father was challenged to reconcile with Williams’ mother. Her action had a very real, positive effect.

“There is all these little tings in your life just sitting there,” said Williams. “You can either see them or you can walk away from them.”

Williams clearly invited all TEDxCharlotte participants to see and to act — specifically through the non-profit sector. She described non-profits as a hotbed of people looking for what isn’t (yet). Non-profits are home, she said, to every great, innovative, humanitarian, arts, culture, education, medical breakthrough in the U.S. — the place where we have permission.

“You don’t have to be sure,” said Williams. “All you have to do is take risks. We allow mistakes. In fact, we celebrate mistakes. We make a lot of them.”

“If you want to find your place in America, it’s not under the bed, it’s not in the closet, it’s in the non-profit sector. … There is no end to the possibility of the work that we could do.”

But there’s a problem in Charlotte right now, and Williams is acutely aware of it. Charlotte is currently ranked 38th in the nation in civic engagement. Why? “Because we’re new and we’re old,” said Williams. Charlotte is home to 750,000 old and 750,000 young, and Charlotte is no longer “knit together.”

“What is the responsibility we are going to take for that?” asked Williams.

“With 4,000 charities to choose from … don’t miss your opportunity to pick the one, the cause, the issue, the thing that got you when you were 14 years old that makes a difference to you.”

“Speak up, stand up, to be heard, do it because that’s what you want to do,” challenged Williams. “I hope it will be in the non-profit sector. We need you. We want you. We will treasure you. And I promise, it will be a place where you will have unlimited opportunity to reach your potential.”


Karla Williams
Karla Williams is the principal of The Williams Group, whose mission is Creating Environments for Philanthropy. Through her work with the group, she has helped over 200 non-profits accomplish unlimited goals with their limited resources. Before consulting Karla was the Communications and Development Director for Children’s Home Society of Minnesota, the Executive Director of the Minnesota Zoological Society and the President of the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Saint Paul.

Live blog post by Steve Knight