Navigating a Nonprofit Leader’s Hesitancy around Thought Leadership

Problem solving skill, critical thinking or finding solution to solve problem, answer question, creativity or imagination, businessman on thinking bubble connect question mark to lightbulb solution.

Nonprofit executives often build up years of experience addressing gaps in education, affordable housing, healthcare, animal welfare, voter registration and other social issues that can be leveraged through thought leadership in the media. Yet it can be easy for them to shrink at the opportunity.

Their hesitations are grounded in legitimate fears. Leaders may balk at commenting on any issues that are remotely political based on concerns that they will lose their 501c(3) status or crucial funding from government grants and contracts. Leaders may also be wary of alienating some of their key stakeholders by making hardline statements on a controversial issue or policy. Lastly, executives may question the legitimacy of their voice in different conversations based on their personal and professional backgrounds.

The bottom line is nonprofit leaders are human, care deeply about their mission, and would never want to jeopardize what they, their staff and their partners have built. As public relations professionals, it’s our job to address their fears and demonstrate the value of thought leadership for advancing their work.

Here are three ways to persuade nonprofit leaders to consider pursuing the pivotal communications vehicle of thought leadership.

Think Audience First

When approaching nonprofit executives, shift your focus away from the goal of placements. Instead, focus on audience and impact. Ask the central question, “what’s on the minds of the people you serve?” or “in this policy and advocacy landscape, what do your stakeholders need to hear from you?”

This framing emphasizes the value of having your ears to the ground and responding through communications to the needs of people looking to you for guidance and public support.

Think Nuance

As much as we’d like leaders to take a strong, controversial stance on certain issues, since this tends to be more newsworthy, that’s often unfeasible. Nonprofit executives are bound by their personal comfort levels, their board’s priorities, their organization’s legal designation, and other factors. The best approach here is to meet them where they are with responses for each of their concerns.

I recently worked with a leader doing wonderful community organizing work in the Northeast. This leader was cautious about bylining a social commentary op-ed that 1) didn’t feel right given their socioeconomic background and 2) might alienate their stakeholders, who had diverse political leanings.

My team and I crafted a piece with them that stayed away from commenting on a government official or a specific bill. Instead, the piece emphasized a local problem and a practical solution supported by the results of the related organization’s model. The op-ed was published by a major state newspaper.

Think Marketing Value

It’s important to remember the value of new content for marketing. One quote or story can be repurposed for social media posts, newsletter sections, presentations, events, and other platforms. So, in addition to sharing a valuable opinion through a news placement, a leader can take his or her voice straight to the people in a way that demands little capacity.

At the end of the day, nonprofit executives have a primary job to do. That is to run an organization and ensure it is meeting its objectives. PR professionals must demonstrate that thought leadership helps amplify their mission and protect their organization’s reputation.

By effectively addressing the nonprofit executive’s reasonable concerns about communications, you can carve a path for more substantive media opportunities that will leave staff—and those they serve—excited for where the organization is headed next.

James Seaton is Director at Group Gordon