Thought Leadership: The Often Overlooked Strategy to Build Organizational Capacity

When we talk about nonprofit capacity building, we typically refer to ways we can strengthen our organizations’ leaders and internal systems so that we can make a stronger impact to our clients and communities. We usually look at factors like board development, human resource development, financial management, networking ability, impact, and program management.

What about using thought leadership as a tool for nonprofit capacity building? Thought leadership is a long-term strategy, but, if used effectively, it may be leveraged to attract more funding; influence policy to create a more favorable environment for nonprofits; encourage funders to be more responsive to community needs; attract strong board members and community partners, and the list goes on. When organizations become thought leaders in their particular areas of expertise, life gets better for everybody involved. We will explore the various perspectives on thought leadership, what it is, and how to get there.

What is Thought Leadership? That depends on who you ask. Michael Brenner, CEO of Inside Marketing Group, says, “I define thought leadership as a type of content marketing where you tap into the talent, experience, and passion inside your business, or from your community, to consistently answer the biggest questions on the minds of your target audience, on a particular topic.”

Brenner goes on to say, “It’s not pedigree. It’s not where you went to school. Thought Leadership means you provide the best and deepest answers, to your customers’ biggest questions, in the formats your audience likes to consume.”

Brenner advises aspiring thought leaders in the content marketing field to differentiate with their points of view, when appropriate. While differentiating themselves through visual design is important, Brenner reminds content marketers that their first priority is helping their customers solve their problems.

The same lessons can be applied to aspiring nonprofit thought leaders. We should differentiate ourselves, with consistency in the way we serve our clients and communities. Most importantly, we should differentiate ourselves by helping our clients and stakeholders solve the very problems our organizations were created to address, on a daily basis.

According to Caroline Avakian, Founder of SourceRise, “becoming a nonprofit thought leader means so much more than asking your communications staff to share content on topics that are within the organizations subject area expertise. It means more than attending conferences. Thought leadership means you’re leading with your thinking. You’re leading with ideas. You’re leading because you are choosing to empower others with information and analysis that is difficult to find elsewhere. You’re adding real value to an existing conversation. And you’re doing it all consistently. It’s that simple … and that challenging.”

In her article, Building your Nonprofits Thought Leadership Capacity, Avakian shares strategies nonprofits can use as they begin having the ‘thought leadership’ conversation:

Start with the big idea

1. Every big idea starts with a vision. It has a strong viewpoint and brings new insight and problem solving to an existing issue. Ask yourself and your team, what original, innovative and valuable perspective your organization and the communities you work with bring to the table. What do you want to achieve from it?

Overcome fear

2. Effective thought leadership programs are an organizational development function not just a public relations function. Powerful thought leadership campaigns need to be embedded into the culture of an organization in order to be truly successful. Sharing and taking a position can be a frightening act for a nonprofit that doesn’t necessarily engage in advocacy work. Teams need to be on board with sharing ideas and insights with the world. Does your culture support that? If not, what steps can be taken to inch toward that goal?

Tell a great story

3. Concentrate on telling one focused, compelling and clear story that supports your big idea and communicate it using channels you know your audience engages with. Social media is a no brainer but there’s also traditional media, speaking events, panels and conferences, that can position your organization as an expert in your field.

Become a resource

4. People don’t like to be sold things, for the most part. Even when what you’re selling is a noble and brilliant cause. That said, they do buy into solutions, expertise and problem-solving. Share your insights in an accessible and digestible way. Spread your idea. Be consistent. Offer guidance and people will follow.

Inspire action

5. Powerful communications and thought leadership can inspire people to act. Whatever your idea is, make sure that it is actionable. What do you want people to do? Be brave. Ask for what you want.

There are also strategies that you can use at the grassroots level. These can be particularly helpful for community organizers; organizations leading advocacy campaigns or organizations who want to keep their finger on the pulse of community developments. Here are 4 strategies that I have found to be particularly effective.

Build trusting relationships with local stakeholders

1. No one listens to people they don’t know or trust. It is important to build strong relationships with stakeholders at every level. This includes clients, employees, board members, funders, local residents, elected officials, general public, etcetera. While there is no one way to build relationships, elements of healthy relationships include open and honest communication, mutual respect, following through on promises, taking a genuine care and concern for others and sharing information.

Host public forums that have the potential to sway public opinion

2. One of the most effective ways to build credibility as a thought leader is to host public forums to discuss hot topics. The events should have very clear goals and objectives; highlight issues; elicit ideas from attendees, and conclude with a call to action. Outcomes should always be reported back to the attendees, participants, the press and general public. These forums can take the form of town hall meetings, panel discussions, teach- ins, etcetera. Make sure to call the press and/or record the events on video, preferably through a Facebook Live stream.

Conduct surveys

3. Conducting surveys serve several purposes beyond improving programs and services. First they allow your organization to engage your constituency, and hear their perspectives on the issues impacting clients, community and stakeholders. Organizations that engage with their local communities and clients have a leg up on thought leadership. The survey data may be used to uncover new learning that may be used to develop messaging strategies, strengthen articles and presentations that influence policy and funding decisions.

Conduct an evaluation

4.The program evaluation process is usually used to assess how well a program is running, or the degree to which a program is meeting its goals, objectives and outcomes. The evaluation process provides a great opportunity to collect data to support outcomes and to better understand how to go about addressing some of your clients’ most pressing issues. After the evaluation is completed, you can share lessons learned with funders, policy makers and other stakeholders. Depending on the audience, the result could be increased funding, an amplified voice on issues of concern to your local community and organization and the ability to create models that may be replicated by other organizations.

Now it’s your turn. What are some of the strategies you have used to become a thought leader or influence public opinion?

About the Author

Valerie F. Leonard is an expert in community and organizational development, helping organizations build sustainable communities. She is the Founder of Nonprofit Utopia, the ideal community for emerging leaders, and host of the Nonprofit Utopia podcast. Valerie teaches courses in nonprofit management for the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Certificate in Nonprofit Management program. For further information, visit www.valeriefleonard.com and https://nonprofitutopia.mn.co

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