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C-Suite Advisory

Five thought leadership tips for nonprofit CEOs

Rick Cohen

It should be no surprise that thought leadership marketing is an effective tool for supporting a nonprofit’s mission. After all, when your organization is out to make the world a better place, it typically has better-than-average stories to tell. What is surprising is how few nonprofit CEOs take the lead in thought leadership.

I sat down recently with Rick Cohen, Chief Communications Officer and Chief Operating Officer for the National Council of Nonprofits to explore why and how those at the head of nonprofits should be leveraging their organization’s intellectual capital. Five key points emerged from our discussion:

One: Turn thought leadership into conversation leadership.
I started the interview by asking exactly what thought leadership means in a nonprofit context. Cohen answered that, “Thought leadership is not just teaching; it’s a conversation. It’s sharing some of the wisdom that you’ve acquired, some of the lessons that you’ve learned along the way and engaging with others so that they can discover how those lessons apply to the work they’re doing.”

That engagement can come in many forms: leading a roundtable at a conference, hosting a podcast, or conducting a Q&A series on your organization’s blog.

Two: Share your thinkers as well as your thoughts.
Cohen described a dual role for the CEO – both as a thought leader herself and as the champion of the other great thinkers driving the organization. “The easiest answer as to who should be out front in thought leadership is the CEO or the Board Chair,” he said. “But really, it can be anybody. It might be someone leading one of your programs, or somebody deep into operations. It really can be anybody who has something to share with others.

It’s important for a nonprofit to have more than just one or two faces representing the organization, to show the community just how many folks there are who are making a difference, and who have wisdom to share.”

Three:  Practice bite-size wisdom.
According to Cohen, one of the best ways for nonprofits to share that wisdom today is via short videos. “You can’t do a 20-minute video,” he counseled. “you’ve got to do two and a half minutes. I think there are a lot of nonprofits – and for-profits – that are doing a good job in sharing things in bite-size nuggets, which are a lot easier to digest than an hour-long talk.

Videos also have the advantage of humanizing your nonprofit. They emphasize that you are more than an organization doing good – you’re actually good people working passionately to achieve a mission.

Four:  Give away your expertise.
One noted expert, Andy Crestodina, says that a key to effective thought leadership and content marketing is to approach it as a “contest of generosity.”  Cohen put it this way: “In the nonprofit community, we know that no one nonprofit can do this alone. We need to work together, and thought leadership enables a nonprofit to share some of the things that are working so that other nonprofits – and, frankly, for-profits and governments and everyone else – can benefit as they try to solve the problems in our communities.”

Five:  Aim for the impactful few, not the viral many.
Cohen also addressed one common misconception in nonprofit marketing, applicable to thought leadership or any communication effort in this digital age – that if it doesn’t go viral it’s not worthwhile. He counseled that nonprofit leaders should focus on reaching the most meaningful audience, not the largest.

“You need that one right person who didn’t know your organization existed, who wants to provide a donation, or who may have the solution to that problem that’s been tripping you up for years. They’re your next staff member, your next board member, or just somebody who can say, ‘Hey, I’ve been through that before and I know the way to go.’ That’s one of the great things about social media – it doesn’t always have to go viral.  It can just be two people sharing, then two more, and two more. You don’t have to reach 100,000 – you have to reach one. Thought leadership gives you an avenue to reach that one person who really cares about what you’re doing, who may make a real difference in the future.”

Thought leadership can be an incredibly effective tool for the nonprofit CEO – is this the year you’ll pick it up and use it?

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Chuck Kent
Chuck Kent is the Chief Conversation Officer at Lead the Conversation, a content creation consultancy that makes it easier for busy executives to create authentic thought leadership content and lead meaningful industry conversations. Chuck Kent is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.