Non-profit organizations can expand their influence without substantively expanding their budgets. How? By using their influence as a Thought Leader.
What is a Thought Leader?
At its heart, a Thought Leader[*] is an individual, organization or firm who is recognized by prospects, clients, and even competitors as the foremost authority and innovator in a specific field. This elevated status gives them greater influence.
In the for-profit world, individuals and companies use Thought Leadership to market their expertise and to differentiate themselves from the competition. Marketing matters. An organization has to be seen by others as the Thought Leader and not just be the best in the field. Today’s industry example has to be Elon Musk and Space X. Arguably, Space X is leading space exploration and innovation, not NASA. The marketing of Space X’s content and innovation elevates the organization’s status and increases demand for its products or services (Tesla). The individual or company can therefore charge more for its products and services, resulting in increased profit.
In the non-profit world, it is similar, but not identical.
Social-good organizations that are recognized as the “foremost authority” tackling social issues can advance their cause through their direct work and by influencing others to use their methods. It is an external strategy to achieve their mission. A side benefit is that it creates a cycle of self-improvement: opening up your model and methods to external scrutiny creates a feedback loop that you can use to improve your model.
The ultimate result is increased impact on the issue you care about most.
The level and speed of impact varies based on the goal for your program of Thought Leadership. For example, at a minimum, nonprofit thought leadership creates more opportunities for your organization. Similar to the business sector, non-profit thought leadership elevates your organization’s profile and brings in more business. Preeminence provides a bully pulpit to reach a wider and more influential audience. This elevation puts your organization in the spotlight and attracts greater funding, talented staff, connected board members, and useful partners.
Thought Leaders can go further by traveling, writing, and evangelizing in order to build a following that will replicate its methods. Think of Maria Montessori from the Casa dei Bambini in 1907 Rome, writing and traveling to talk about her early childhood education methods. Her vision has outlived her, and her methods are used by countless schools around the world today at no cost (or effort) to Maria Montessori.
Further, Thought Leadership can also use the bully pulpit to advocate for change –to change mindsets and laws. Automatically, we think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rep. John Lewis leveraging the power of the pulpit for the passage of the 24th Amendment and the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today’s example is our client the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ) working state-by-state to Raise the Age of criminal responsibility to 18. These are individuals or organizations that leverage their authority and their elevated platform to advocate for changed laws which have an amplified impact on their mission.
Ultimately, presenting work externally through a strategic program of thought leadership will help nonprofits be better and expand their influence. The close scrutiny it requires provides opportunity continuously improve, it builds a following, and it can increase the speed and power of their impact by inspiring and influencing others (practitioners, investors, policy makers) to join them and act similarly.