June 23, 2014

5 tips to start your nonprofit thought leadership plan

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Thought leadership can be one of the most effective communications strategies for nonprofits

Target audience: Nonprofits, cause organizations, foundations, NGOs, social enterprises, social strategists.

Caroline AvakianEvery so often, change makers and nonprofit leaders are unsure about how to activate the most powerful resource they have — their intellectual capital.

Organizations can be treasure troves of big ideas just waiting to be unleashed and shared with the world, but these same organizations can have limited resources and small or non-existent communications and marketing teams more focused on sharing information and trying to drum up support in an overcrowded charity marketplace.

Thought leadership communications is arguably the most effective and least expensive way a smaller organization can build awareness, support for ideas, and influence the communities they need to reach, including decision makers, policy makers and donors. Nonprofits have their missions but they are often unsure about how to wrap that same mission around a bigger idea — an idea that is woven into the every day world their donors and supporters live in, and that helps those same donors and supporters, better understand the nonprofits work. It’s not easy to all of the sudden turn your nonprofit leaders and your organization into a thought leader – it takes time and commitment but it can be done.

Here’s the thing: So many nonprofit leaders want to become thought leaders but that 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.

Below are five ways your nonprofit can begin having the ‘thought leadership’ conversation:

Start with the big idea

1Every 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

2Effective 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

3Concentrate 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

4People 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

5Powerful 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.

What does thought leadership look like for your organization? We’d love to know. Share your thoughts in the comments below.Caroline Avakian, Socialbrite’s Managing Partner, is a global development communications strategist in the New York City area with a focus on strategic communications, innovation, PR, and content marketing. Caroline is also the founder of SourceRise, a digital platform connecting journalists to international NGO sources. Contact Caroline by email, see her profile page, visit her website, follow her on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment.

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  • Mark

    This is a great article – and I love the focus on “one big idea”. At our organization, all of our learning opportunities and organizational models fall under one big idea: the Abundant Not-for-Profit. This “big idea” has been instrumental in: 1) inspiring others to get involved in our cause and to “act”, 2) disseminating our models in a way that is understandable, 3) ensuring a culture whereby we’re all excited to share our content. We have found that a strong vision or overarching idea is instrumental to building a culture of passionate thought leadership.

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