Using Your Expertise to Become a Nonprofit Thought Leader

July 18, 2019
4 minutes

Since it’s 2019 we’re gonna guess you know a thing or two about content marketing. You know all that stuff you're always pushing out through social media, newsletters, and emails to educate, build community, and support organizational goals like raising money? Yep, that's considered content marketing.

Corporations and nonprofits have been content marketing for well over a decade at this point and have seen some impressive results. One example is the “Start Something” web series from Big Brothers Big Sisters, which has garnered thousands of views on YouTube and beyond.

For all the benefits content marketing offers nonprofits, there's another angle worthy of consideration—thought leadership content. Forbes defines a thought leader as “an individual or firm that prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in it being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.” By being a thought leader, organizations often gain more earned media (aka organic), larger social followings, and even more donations.

Let’s explore how your nonprofit can own its expertise as a thought leader to supercharge its content marketing.

Hold up. Wait a minute. What does it even mean for a nonprofit to be a thought leader?

We’re glad you asked! When you think of a thought leader, you might think of someone like Seth Godin or Brene Brown. Your next thought might be, “There’s no way my nonprofit is the Brene Brown of nonprofits!”

Sure, there are high profile thought leaders in every industry and some even become wide-spread household names. But this isn’t the only way for thought leadership to be effective. Kivi Leroux Miller of Nonprofit Marketing Guide says that there are three types of nonprofit thought leaders:

  1. The expert with real-world experience—this expert is defined by their “boots-on-the-ground” approach with folks who personally witness the issues the organization deals with. Organizations like Mercy Corps and Girl Scouts are great examples of this kind of thought leader.
  2. The expert with insightful perspectives—this kind of expert is a visionary leader and often is the founder of the organization. Think charity: water or Vu Le of Nonprofit AF.
  3. The reporting expert—this expert pays close attention to what’s happening around them, can synthesize that information and share it in easy-to-understand ways with others. Beth Kanter is a great example of this kind of nonprofit thought leader.

Picking one of these types can make creating thought leadership content less overwhelming because it'll give you strategic direction and focus. So fundraising friend, which kind of thought leader is your nonprofit? Take some time to reflect on your strengths and how they could support each kind of thought leadership.

How to build your nonprofit thought leadership plan

So now that you've determined what type of thought-leader you are, like any content-based marketing initiative, you need an effective plan. You’ve got enough on your plate, so creating content for content sake would be a mistake (hey, that rhymed!). What you need is focused, strategic thought leadership content that helps you reach your overall marketing goals. Here are five steps you can follow to guide you towards an effective thought leadership plan for your nonprofit.

Set a goal and measurables

It’s hard to do effective marketing when you don’t have a goal or measurables in place. It's like doing a water balloon toss with no one on the receiving end. Trust us, there are better ways to make a splash! As you embark on your thought leadership journey, setting a goal is crucial. What does your organization hope to get out of this initiative? It could be to increase inbound requests for expert interviews in media outlets, or to get a certain number of views or engagements with thought leadership content. Whatever you decide, keep in mind that one goal you definitely shouldn't set is “increasing awareness.” It’s wayyyy too vague and really difficult to measure. Try your best to get specific.

Determine your topics

Any successful thought leadership initiative must focus on one (or a few) key topics over time. In other words, there must be consistency with your thought leadership content. You (and your team) can start by brainstorming a list of topics that you want to talk about then narrow it down to the most important ones. For example, an independent school might cover topics like the importance of education, the value of independent schools in the education system, and challenges with public school curriculum.

Figure out your angle and opinions

Thought leadership is all about having something interesting and timely to say. Once you determine your topics, you need to figure out what you have to say about each of them. Now, this is where a lot of nonprofits start to get a bit nervous because having opinions naturally means not everyone will agree with them. You might fret about losing audience members or even making people angry. This could happen regardless of whether or not you form and share opinions. However, by forming opinions you’ll be able to deepen engagement and connection with your most aligned audience members and that’s worth its weight in gold.

Pick a medium

One of the things that make thought leadership unique in the sea of content is that there’s usually a specific medium chosen for the piece and most often that medium is conducive to longer-form content. This could be a blog post, a video, whitepaper, or even a report. Consider your organization’s budget, resources, audience, and general strengths with content when picking a medium for your thought leadership.

Create a promotional plan

Now you might be wondering what role social media and the like play in thought leadership. They are distribution channels that will help get eyeballs on your thought leadership pieces. As you build your plan for thought leadership, you’ll want to create a promotional plan. After all, a lot of time and resources will go into your content and you don’t want them collecting digital dust. Schedule a few emails to your list, develop social media posts, and even send personal emails to key contacts once it's published and watch as your engagement soars.

Examples of nonprofit thought leadership in action

Before we wrap up, we want to leave you with a little inspiration. Check out these examples of nonprofit thought leadership in action.

Audubon North Carolina does a great job at leveraging their expertise about birds through media interviews and op-eds. They keep an archive of the coverage on their website to get more mileage out of their efforts.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has an extensive research program in place and they freely share their research findings with the public. While some might be more scientific, there are ways to use key findings in content that’s friendly for broader consumption.

Got a founder with an interesting story? Charity: water’s found Scott Harrison’s story has long been part of the organization’s story. He recently wrote a book about founding this organization that has further fueled their visionary thought leadership.

Best Friends Animal Society has taken its 2025 strategic goal as the focal point for their thought leadership. This is a great strategy if your organization is focused on an audacious goal or an innovative initiative. Thought leadership will help you tell the story of the goal and get more people on board with it.

Thought leadership offers nonprofits amazing opportunities to own and showcase their expertise. The content you produce help your organization become known and market your brand in the process. While this kind of content can take longer to produce than a typical social media post, you’ll be able to get more mileage from the content and bring more cohesiveness to your marketing messages.

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