Thought Leadership in the Not-For-Profit World

What is Thought Leadership?

The term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the Booz & Co magazine Strategy & Business, and used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had business ideas that merited attention.

Forbes defines it as such:

A thought leader is an individual or firm who’s prospects, clients, referral sources, intermediaries and even competitors recognize as one of the foremost authorities in selected areas of specialization, resulting in its being the go-to individual or organization for said expertise.[1]

At its root, Thought Leadership is about content marketing –how you share (market) what you know or have learned.   Ideally, those who are marketing their content are the “foremost authorities.”

The same Forbes article quoted above goes on to say, “A thought leader is an individual or firm that significantly profits from being recognized as such.”


What is Profit to a Not-For-Profit?

For-profits know what profit is –its money.  There is absolute clarity on what they are working for and it’s easy to count and quantify–its money!   What is profit to the not-for-profit?  (And why must we define ourselves but what we don’t work for?)

Non-profits DO have profit –they simply define it differently.  Their profit is impact, impact on the social good. When I led Higher Achievement our profit was student grades, test scores, attendance, punctuality, and opportunity –specifically the number and quality of top high school placements.  As a CEO of a school system, profit was student mastery of grade appropriate academic content and social emotional development.  We have profit, but its not money.


How does A Not-For-Profit Use Thought Leadership?

Non-profits are similar to our for-profit counterparts, but not the same.  This distinction affects how the different sectors view the role of a Thought Leader.  For-profits use Thought Leadership to differentiate themselves from the competition for the purpose of business development.  It increases demand for a product or service (demand creation) and, as the recognized innovator and leader, enables them to get more business and charge more for their services.

Non-for-profits are similar, but not the same (I said it again!).  They use Thought Leadership to advance their ideas and experiences by inspiring others.  It is an external way of pursuing mission.

The key strategy is to be different from competitors… They [not-for-profits] break free from “be better” internally oriented initiatives to “be different” externally oriented strategies.[2]

It can also have different objectives, in the non-profit world.  For example:

  • To Create More Opportunities: Similar to the for-profit sector, the goal is to raise awareness of your work in order to create opportunities: increased funding, talented staff, connected board members, etc.
  • To Build a Following: Non-profits evangelize via Thought Leadership so other organizations believe what they believe and execute accordingly.
  • To Advocate for Change: Some organizations use Thought Leadership as their advocacy strategy.  They advocate for changes in laws, systems and/or the way things work.

Ultimately, non-profits can increase the speed and power of their impact by inspiring and influencing critical stakeholders (practitioners, investors, policy makers) to join them, to think and act similarly.  As a result, they multiply their impact with the collaborative support and learning from a community of practitioners and supporters.

At Onward, we are thoroughly impressed by the number of not-for-profits who are striving to be Thought Leaders for their field; for purposes beyond their individual impact but rather to collaborate and help build a united effort and conscious about an issue: societal profit.  Whether it is teaching sustainability; treating adjudicated youth and juveniles; or helping first generation college students graduate, not-for-profit leaders are always looking for ways to maximize their “profit” and Thought Leadership is one more strategy for their tool box.

Worth Noting:

During my research I uncovered this gem in a comment on a blog posting:

Social scientists now promote the view that there are 3 stages beyond Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.   After we self actualize (stage 5), we become more fulfilled by helping others grow (stage 6), then we evolve our awareness of our eco-impact on the world (stage 7) and then we come into unity consciousness (stage 8) at which level wisdom is acquired and for these individuals – fulfillment is found in daily solitary reflection on how s/he makes a positive influence in the world each day.

Hmmmmm “positive influence in the world each day” that sounds a lot like a not-for-profit’s profit to me.

My best,

Maureen Holla

Managing Partner





[1]  “What is a Thought Leader?” Forbes ( is a thought leader/

[2] Professors Terrell and Middlebrooks of the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and University of Chicago Graduate School of Business