Using Your Subject Matter Expertise to Become a Nonprofit Thought Leader

March 1, 2024
4 minutes
"Rabblerouser."

That's the term that nonprofit marketing consultant and dear Funraise friend David Schwab used to describe nonprofit thought leader Andrew Olsen. 

"A 'rabblerouser' is someone who knows things need to change and isn't afraid to be the voice that sparks it." –David Schwab

What David meant was that Andrew is a thought leader in the nonprofit world. And as a thought leader himself, David was shining a light on other voices that he found to be impactful and inspiring.

Everything you push out via social media, emails, and your website to educate, build community, and support organizational goals is considered nonprofit content marketing. Your standing to speak authoritatively is called subject matter expertise (SME). Strong, confident SME often has a unique perspective, which turns average content into thought leadership.

Corporations and organizations in the nonprofit sector 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, thought leadership content may be one of the strongest, especially with the advent of AI. 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.

What does being a thought leader mean?

Many people think of someone like Seth Godin or Brene Brown when they hear the term "thought leader". Those thought leaders have demonstrated that they are experts in marketing and leadership, respectively, but being a thought leader simply means that you are the authority on one topic. 

Sure, there are high-profile thought leaders in every industry and some even become widespread 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 leaders. While we'd argue there are four types of nonprofit thought leadership (and we'll get into that), we really like how Kivi explains this! And we'd also prefer to give you more information instead of trying to gatekeep different perspectives. Here are Kivi's nonprofit leader types:

  • 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.
  • The expert with insightful perspectives—this kind of expert is a visionary leader and often is the founder of the organization. Think Scott Harrison of charity: water or Vu Le of Nonprofit AF.
  • 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.

In fact, here's a perfect opportunity to hear two reporting experts at work! Listen in to Beth Kanter and Allison Fine talk to Justin Wheeler, Funraise Co-founder, CEO, and insightful perspective expert on the Nonstop Nonprofit podcast about their book, The Smart Nonprofit: Staying Human-Centered In An Automated World.

For an example of thought leadership, here's what Allison had to say when discussing the intersection of donor retention and smart tech: 

What we would like to see organizations do is use smart tech to do some of the tasks that are taking up enormous amounts of time. Like going through your own database and looking for prospects. Going out on the web and looking for prospects. Having your staff now become chief relationship officers, getting to know donors deeply and asking them what it would take for them to be ambassadors for the cause.

That's a different model that requires people to really take the lead on not just identifying donors but keeping them, which is the pathway to a much more sustainable model. –Allison Fine, President, Every.org

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.

4 Types of Nonprofit Thought Leadership ...and what makes them work

As we mentioned above, we like to break down nonprofit thought leadership into 4 types. And since you've already been introduced to this concept, we decided to go a little further and explain not just what they are, but why they're so powerful.

Servant Thought Leadership

Servant thought leaders are characterized by the way they're not afraid to get their hands dirty, they lead by example, walk amongst the people, manage from the rear, and, above all, listen. This style of thought leadership works because of its emphasis on mission and community.

Community Engagement

Who better to get the community involved in the hard work than a servant thought leader? It's never easy to glamorize work, but they make it attractive to progress with your people, hand in hand. 

Mission-Centric Focus

Executive directors who are laser-focused on their mission are able to galvanize others to execute fundraising strategy, organizational strategy, and leadership strategy because they can see how it relates back to the nonprofit's mission.

Transformational Thought Leadership

Transformational thought leadership style boasts a dynamic, compelling track record that combines nonprofit storytelling and digital tools to deliver innovative solutions—and actually provide the motivation to implement them. This style of thought leadership works because of its emphasis on using compelling narratives to create deeper connections. 

Inspiring Action

Inspiring action through inspiring actions. Be the change you want to see in the world and all that. We talk about it like it's the easiest thing in the world, but inspiring people to make meaningful change is no laughing matter.

Sharing Knowledge

Someone smart said, "Knowledge is power," and that seems about right. But hoarding knowledge—or power—isn't the sign of a great leader; in fact, the opposite is true. Sharing the wealth and uplifting others is the mark of someone worthy of following. Transformational thought leaders provide others with the power that they need to make powerful change.

Transactional Thought Leadership

Transactional thought leadership style motivates change through rewards based on hitting metrics or achieving goals. Rewards can be tangible, like money, or intangible, like praise or the satisfaction of making a difference. This style of thought leadership works because of its focus on clear goals and outcomes as well as resource direction.

Outcome Measurement

Who doesn't love a carrot?! And when we say "carrot," we actually mean reward. And when we say "reward," we actually mean feeling pride in ourselves and our actions. That's the magic of a transactional thought leader: a big goal leads to corresponding action. 

Resource Allocation and Sustainability

Having a strong advocate who believes in you is key to achieving your goals. And having a positive influence that can show you how your actions will reverberate and bear fruit long after you're gone is the mark of truly accountable leadership.

Charismatic Thought Leadership

Like moths to a flame, charismatic thought leaders capture an attentive audience and make complex challenges seem imminently doable. This type of thought leadership works because it burns brightly and brings larger, long-term change to the forefront.

Visionary Insight

If you have friends that come up with bigger-than-big ideas and love challenging the status quo, they may be visionaries-in-the-rough. There's something exciting about embarking on an adventure that no one else has tried—and that's what charismatic thought leaders bring to the table. 

Long-term Solutions

Little problems are just stumbling blocks to charismatic thought leaders. In their presence, the little day-to-day issues that snag so many of us seem like busywork. Their attention—and therefore ours—is on the long-term effects of our efforts.

The one thing every thought leader needs

It may sound click-bait-y, but we're for real. The one thing every thought leader needs to attract, motivate, and retain their target audience is Subject Matter Expertise (SME). SME is crucial to more than thought leadership, though—it's a calling card, a brand, and the unique value each leader brings to the conversation. 

These days, artificial intelligence can write about anything. The one thing that AI doesn't have is lived experience and an opinion. Thought leaders progress our sector by bringing their individual perspective on any situation.

The three Es of Subject Matter Expertise

Breaking it down further, SME is the single most valuable element that a thought leader can bring to the table. Without it, their message can be undermined in a myriad of ways.

Lived Experience

Being able to draw on real-world experience is a cornerstone of believability. If you're not part of the population that is affected by an issue or if you haven't witnessed their hardships, you'll have a longer road to thought leadership. True leaders draw on their life experiences to relate to a wider audiences.

Ongoing Education

Be better. Do better. It's a core part of every great leader's journey—learning from their mistakes, following the example of others, and listening to their mentors and muses. Education can come in many forms, and thought leaders absorb knowledge from every place they can. 

Compassion and Empathy

The final thing that leaders lean on is their own humanity. And extending grace toward oneself is a direct result of and path toward empathy towards others. When we tap into what others have endured, we understand their motivations, actions, fears, and celebrations.

Why you should invest in content marketing

Stats show that content marketing is a valuable piece of your overall marketing plan. Need more than our word? Take a look; Siege Media has all the content marketing stats you could want, including:

  • Blog entries containing video content get over 80% more traffic than articles without.
  • Most report that their content budgets will not go down this year, with over 50% reporting an increase.
  • 54% of businesses that invest a substantial amount on a single content piece acknowledge their strategy as highly successful.
  • In 2023, 65% of content marketers intend to leverage AI content generation tools for content marketing efforts.
  • AI can only regurgitate known content (In theory. Obviously, hallucinations are A Thing.) Your leaders can offer a wealth of knowledge based on lived experience, including personal stories, quotes, and unique perspectives on existing conversations

Need more? Here's another helping of content marketing stats from Proper Expression:

  • 90% of organizations have a content marketing strategy.
  • 71% of content marketers reported that content marketing has grown in significance in the past year.

How to build your nonprofit thought leadership strategy

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's sake would be a mistake. What you need is focused, quality content that helps your nonprofit organization reach its overall marketing goals. Here are five steps you can follow to guide you toward an effective thought leadership plan for your nonprofit.

Set a relevant content goal

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 interviews with nonprofit experts or to get a certain number of views or engagements with your nonprofit leader's valuable 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, and your subject matter expert content will do that naturally. Try your best to get specific.

Determine your topics

Any successful thought leadership initiative must focus on one (or a few) key subjects 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

Effective thought leader content is all about having something interesting and timely to say. Once you determine your subjects, 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, but—spoiler alert—this could happen regardless of whether 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 channel

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. Most often, that medium is conducive to longer-form online content. We're talking nonprofit blog posts, videos, 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.

Choosing a channel doesn't mean neglecting other channels, though! Make sure that you repurpose your longform thought leadership into other types of content and distribute via a variety of channels. This means turning your podcast episodes into other online content and disseminating via social media and your nonprofit blog

Create a promotional plan

If you're wondering what role your social media presence plays in thought leadership, here's the scoop: they're 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 go into this type of content, and you don't want high-level nonprofit executives spending precious time creating a body of knowledge that answers your audience's biggest questions only for those inspiring stories to collect 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.org does a great job at leveraging their expertise about birds, the environment, and relevant legislation through media interviews and op-eds. They keep an archive of the coverage on their website to get more mileage out of their efforts.

Similarly, The Monterey Bay Aquarium has an extensive research program in place, and they freely share their research findings with the public. The result? Online courses for educators, teens, and parents that make furry, adorable subject matter expertise accessible and friendly.

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

Similarly, if you've been in the nonprofit world for any amount of time, you've probably listened to Dan Pallotta's 2013 TED Talk on "The way we think about charity is dead wrong." From that viral TED Talk came a book, Uncharitable, and then a movie, UnCharitable. Talk about thought leadership!

Best Friends Animal Society has taken its 2025 strategic goal as the focal point for its 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 helps your organization become known and markets 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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