In the digital age, calling yourself a thought leader is a bit like introducing yourself as a “local hero.” Coming out of your own mouth, the label doesn't mean much. And yet the nonprofit sector is brimming with self-proclaimed thought leaders. Why?
Thought leaders are seen as experts in the field -- people whose ideas and insights are worth hearing. The media seeks them out for comment; conference organizers invite them to deliver keynotes. In the nonprofit world, the benefits that thought leaders reap for their organizations can be significant. An executive director's thriving personal brand can boost her organization’s profile, leading to increased funding, partnership opportunities, and growth.
To achieve genuine thought leadership status, you need to share meaningful insight with the world in a way that is both strategic and consistent. There are plenty of avenues for doing this; you can write books, do media appearances, and teach courses. However, this article is devoted to a strategy accessible to anyone with an opinion and an Internet connection: digital content.
Digital content is anything you publish online, from blog posts and op-eds to podcasts and videos. Good content sparks conversations, has the potential to go viral, and can be repurposed across multiple channels. Good content generates trust in both you and your organization.
What follows are a set of basic principles for leveraging digital content as a tool for becoming a thought leader. (My focus here is on written content, but these principles apply to any media format.)
Know your audience
Content that doesn’t speak to the needs, challenges, and interests of your target audience is a waste of energy. The first step to becoming a thought leader is to understand both who your audience is and how you can enrich their lives with your writing.
Therefore, before you even begin drafting your first piece, sit down with your team and map out your target audience. Who are your readers? Are they donors, beneficiaries, partners, other nonprofit leaders, or all of the above? What kind of concerns do they have, and what aspects of your expertise might they find the most useful? And ultimately, what do you want from them?
Spend real time and energy on this exploration -- it will provide the foundation for an effective, audience-oriented thought leadership strategy. By nurturing an intimate understanding of your readership, you can ensure that your content will resonate with the people you want to reach, which in turn will bolster your credibility and visibility.
Craft content that matters
Consider this piece in the Non Profit Quarterly by Candi CdeBaca, Nonprofit Unicorns: Realities That Make Executive Directors of Color Mythical. Candi speaks to a crisis in the nonprofit sector -- the staggering lack of executives of colour. Using her own organization for context, Candi analyzes the issue’s root causes and consequences. The piece is as insightful as it is powerful, thanks to Candi’s willingness to write from a place of personal vulnerability.
Here’s what Candi doesn’t do: she doesn’t brag about her organization, and she doesn’t self-promote. Instead, she foregrounds the issue, inviting readers to contemplate it from her perspective.
In the eyes of the reader, Candi emerges as a thoughtful leader with vital insight into a critical issue. If you’re concerned about issues of justice and diversity, you’ll want to know what else Candi has to say -- and so you may end up following her on social media, signing up for her organization’s newsletter, or seeking out events where she’s speaking.
When you publish something meaningful, you invite meaningful connections. Engage your audience with enriching material and they will reward you with attention and trust.
Publish on the right platforms
Of course, you can’t enrich your readers’ lives if they never read your stuff. To become a thought leader, you need a distribution strategy that minimizes the gap between audience and content.
An effective strategy encompasses two interlocking components: 1) content you publish on external publications, and 2) content you publish on your organization’s website (such as blog posts, eBooks, white papers, etc.).
One of the most direct ways to connect with your target audience -- and to gain their trust in the process -- is to publish on the sites they already read and trust. Sites such as HuffPost Impact, the Non Profit Quarterly, and Stanford Social Innovation Review all have dedicated, thriving readership bases, and they all accept contributed content. There are also countless niche publications and blogs that are happy to work with aspiring thought leaders.
As you work on getting published externally, it’s equally important to publish high-quality material through your organization’s website. This helps readers make an explicit connection between you as a credible thought leader and your organization as a credible entity. Your brand equity becomes the organization’s, and vice versa. Your organization’s blog is also a great place to consolidate all of your externally published content as a service to your audience, so they can access everything in one place. And by driving traffic to the organization’s website, your content can help boost donations, convert subscribers, and strengthen your digital presence.
Prioritize and enlist help
The two biggest perceived obstacles to implementing a thought leadership strategy are talent and time. While some nonprofit leaders have confidence in their writing abilities, many do not -- plus, who can find the time to write?
Dissolve these obstacles by doing two things. First, prioritize your thought leadership strategy as one of your core responsibilities. When you understand your digital content as being vital to achieving the organization’s mission, you won’t place thought leadership on the backburner.
Second, enlist help. Make the content process a collaborative one. Leverage the talents embedded in your team -- who can help you brainstorm topics relevant to your audience? Who can be your editor, helping to make your writing the best it can be? Who can liaise with publications, share via social media, and take the lead on distribution? Institutionalizing these roles can make the process smooth and seamless.
And if the actual writing process poses too big a hurdle, consider taking on a co-writer or a ghostwriter. This can be someone from inside or outside the organization who will help translate your voice and ideas into compelling, engaging copy. It’s common practice and there are many independent consultants who specialize in nonprofit thought leadership.
Ultimately, an investment in thought leadership is an investment in your organization. By sharing vital knowledge with your target audience, you are fostering thriving relationships with people who can help drive your mission forward.