Thought leaders can generate real benefits for your nonprofit organization. By sharing vital knowledge with your target audience, thought leaders can forge meaningful, thriving connections that will radiate across your networks. This fuels a kind of social sector star power that can be harnessed to bolster your organization’s visibility, funding, and growth.

Many nonprofits focus all of their energy into elevating a single member of the team to thought leadership status. This “chosen one” is usually someone high up in the organizational hierarchy, often the executive director.

On the one hand, it makes sense to appoint the ED as the in-house thought leader. The pursuit of thought leadership requires time and energy, and it seems natural to invest these scarce resources in someone whose perspective is infused with organizational authority.

But this individualistic framework obscures some basic math. If one thought leader can have a transformative impact, then why wouldn’t you populate your organization with as many thought leaders as possible?

The benefits of group-oriented thought leadership

There are many compelling reasons to move beyond working with a single thought leader. For one, harnessing multiple voices on your team can exponentially increase the depth and reach of your communications efforts. (This is only true if those voices exist in harmony. More on this later.)

But the benefits go deeper than this. When you entrust your people with a platform to speak their minds, you are sending a clear, powerful message that you value them and that their insights demand an audience. Your vote of confidence helps foster a sense of widespread ownership and emotional investment amongst the team — not only in your communications strategy but in the organization itself.

So what would it mean to take a radically democratic approach to thought leadership? How can you effectively leverage diverse individual perspectives into a collective asset?

How (and why) to nurture multiple thought leaders within your nonprofit organization #NPMC Click To Tweet

Here are some basic guidelines for nurturing multiple thought leaders:

Invest in education and opportunities to educate

The essence of thought leadership is the capacity to enrich other people’s lives by sharing meaningful knowledge with them. In this regard, everyone is a potential thought leader.

To nurture this potential across your team, begin by fostering a culture of deep learning. Train new hires to understand every aspect of your organization — from core philosophy and critical challenges to the nuances of internal operations. Share articles with the team and encourage meaningful discussion. Send people out to relevant conferences, workshops, and classes.

At the same time, provide spaces for people to hone their abilities as educators, both within and outside of the organization. Set up a regular internal gathering (e.g. a weekly lunch and learn) where team members can share knowledge and skills with one another. Make room for operational staff to teach beneficiaries, volunteers, and others about the organization.

By incorporating a love of learning into your core values, you can equip the team with confidence in their ability to share meaningful insight.

Match the right people to the right platforms and opportunities

If you’re taking a democratic approach to thought leadership, does this mean you’ll be trying to get your student intern published in Nonprofit Quarterly? Not necessarily.

But that intern’s voice may be perfectly suited to a university career centre blog. A great blog series there could boost interest in your internship program and help you recruit the best campus talent.

Similarly, if your COO still uses a flip phone, don’t force an Instagram account on her — instead, seek out nonprofit management publications where her voice and experiences will resonate.

Because everyone brings a unique perspective and personality to the table, different individuals on your team are positioned to speak to distinct segments of your target audience. Figure out where these segments live online, what kind of content they consume, and what they are looking for in a thought leader. Then connect them with the most relevant voice on your team.

In a democracy, every voice matters. As you match voices to niches, be very intentional about what your goals and targets are. Without a clear structure in place, it’s inevitable that certain voices will take priority over others, leaving some segments out to dry. Create strategies, editorial calendars, and processes to ensure that the thought leaders you are nurturing can continue building relationships with their audiences over the long run.

Build creative processes and platforms around each thought leader’s needs

'Keep in mind that written content is just one element of a thought leadership strategy.' Click To Tweet

People create differently. While some people can hammer out an 800-word opinion piece in a matter of minutes, others see writing as a form of torture. To develop a team full of thought leaders, you need to foster creative processes that are as dynamic and diverse as your team.

Try pairing up writing-averse people with co-authors. Encourage collaboration that feels natural and low-pressure — maybe through brain dumps, outlines, or even just conversations around a specific topic. Once all of the thought leader’s ideas are on the table, the co-author can finesse them into a cohesive piece. If you don’t have potential co-authors on staff, hire independent consultants.

Keep in mind that written content is just one element of a thought leadership strategy. Explore podcasting, video creation, and any other format that can help make the process of sharing knowledge as painless and enjoyable as possible.

Cross-promote

As your emerging thought leaders establish themselves in their respective niches, be active in promoting their content across platforms. Use your organization’s blog as a centralized showcase; make it easy for your audience to discover all of the diverse content being published in association with your brand. Take to social media to share pieces and start conversations around key insights. Insert rotating links to different pieces in your team’s email signatures; share them in your newsletters.

Your stable of thought leaders is greater than the sum of its parts. Give each voice the support it needs to both stand on its own and to blend with the others.

What’s your experience in working with multiple thought leaders at your nonprofit? What works and what doesn’t? Let us know in the comments!

Ben Losman

Ben Losman

Ben Losman does communications for TechSoup Canada, where he develops learning resources to empower people in the nonprofit sector to make effective use of technology. He also runs an independent writing practice that helps socially-minded people and organizations tell compelling stories that inspire action. Learn more at his website (www.benlosman.com) and follow him on Twitter.