Thought Leadership for Nonprofits

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Thought leadership is a fashionable buzzword that actually means something very simple: people care about your opinions. To be a thought leader, all you need to have are fresh ideas, passion for the topic, and a commitment to producing content.

Sound intimidating? Try starting out by asking yourself these six questions.

1) What topic(s) are you passionate about?

This gives you a scope for what topic you’re going to be writing about. You can’t be a thought leader on everything, so narrow down what you will be writing about. Will it be public relations for nonprofits? Will it be teambuilding and management? New ways to think about recycling? Determine the scope of your primary expertise first, you can always expand to other areas later.

Additionally, what interesting opinions do you have? How is your voice unique? Do you bring a nonprofit passion to viral marketing? Do you blend a background in the arts with your environmental communications? What new do you bring to the conversation about your topic?

Example:  Vu Le, longtime nonprofit leader and current ED, hosts a blog called NonprofitAF.com. Vu is passionate about equity, social justice, and humor. He blends these three interests into a captivating and prolific blog that shows just how deep these passions run.

2) Who stands to benefit from your advice?

And no, the answer isn’t “everyone.” Take the example from the previous bullet point of public relations for nonprofits. Clearly, there is a specific group of people to whom that is relevant: communications, development, and possibly executive-level staff at nonprofits. Keeping your audience in mind at all times will hone your message, make it relevant to the right people, and build you an attentive audience.

Example: Julia Campbell, nonprofit professional and consultant, speaks and writes books on nonprofit storytelling. She focuses her blog posts and speaking on the people in charge of storytelling and social media at a nonprofit, and her advice is perfectly crafted for them.

3) Why are you an authority on this topic?

There’s nothing worse than unsolicited advice from someone with no experience. In order to be an effective thought leader, you need to have a good reason for why your opinion matters. Did you work in a communications department for 10 years? Did you manage the launch of a large product or service? Do you have any relevant degrees? Think of some qualifications that will help people take you seriously, preferably packaged in a short, one-sentence bio that brings it all together.

Example: Amanda Andere, CEO of Funders Together to End Homelessness, has been in human services work for 15 years and has worked with scores of nonprofits, as a board member, staff member, or volunteer. Her deep dedication to social justice shines because of her deep experience in the field.

4) How much content can you produce?

Thought leadership is a lot of work. Writing takes a significant amount of time, but so does marketing the piece. Before you even start seriously marketing yourself, I suggest you build a library of articles wherever is most important. That can be your blog or just a file on your computer.

I suggest you do this before you focus on getting more name/brand recognition. This way you’ll both define some of your cornerstone opinions and ideas and have a deep library of content to choose from before you start marketing yourself. In addition, it is much easier to reach out to people when you have a proven track record of relevant, interesting opinions that matter.

Example: Take a look at the three accounts I have mentioned in this post. Some of them post blogs, some just focus on Twitter. The channel may change, but a constant stream of content is always required.

5) What channels are most useful for you?

First, take an inventory of what access you have to the widest audience. Do you have a large Twitter following? Facebook? LinkedIn? Do you work for an organization that has a large following and is looking for content? What are the ways you have access to the largest audience, especially when it comes to the people who stand to benefit from your advice.

Next, think about what channels your audience follows and respects. If you’re looking to target CEOs, Instagram is not going to be a great option for you. But if you’re trying to reach young moms, Instagram is a great option. Additionally, consider what influencers might want your content and if they would be willing to share or even post some of your content.

Example: This blog post by Beth Kanter outlines how many nonprofit leaders leverage social media specifically to position themselves as thought leaders. However, original content is required for all thought leaders, so consider writing long-form posts on LinkedIn in addition to your social media.

6) Who else needs to know about you?

Once you’ve built a solid brand and have some name recognition, it’s all about growing your influence. That means cold e-mails, going to networking events, and getting published in influential outlets. Spoiler alert: you will never stop asking yourself this question!

Do you want to become a thought leader? Contact Williams Whittle who can help you with your content and marketing!


Allison is a nonprofit communications consultant and friend of Williams Whittle who specializes in creating affordable communications strategies for small nonprofits. She has five years of nonprofit and association experience including developing communications strategies, conducting an organizational rebrand, and building a custom social network.


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