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Social media strategies for aspiring thought leaders

Thought leaders drive conversations online and off. They influence others, shape percep­tions in their field, and serve as the go-to source for those seeking to understand sector issues.

Many nonprofit leaders use their social media profiles—on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn— to extend the reach of their thought leadership and connect with professional colleagues, the media, and policy makers. So while you can’t exactly become a thought leader in the time it takes for your lunch order to come up, you can develop your reputation in those spare moments you find yourself scrolling through your favorite social media app.

The benefits are real. A personal online leadership profile helps your organization reach a new audience. Anyone representing your organization online will be tapping professional networks that don’t necessarily know about your work. A logo won’t build trust in your organi­zation’s brand—for that, you need a human face and voice. Nonprofit leaders are seen as experts in social change issues and solutions, and their opinions can generate a level of trust that a brand alone may not. Studies show that brand messages are shared more often online when they come from individual employees rather than the brand itself. Your organization’s branded social channels most likely have a formal and structured editorial calendar. Using your own social media profile gives you more flexibility, especially regarding breaking news.

A logo won't build trust in your organization's brand–for that, you need a human face and voice.

Social channels (especially Twitter) are used by reporters to find leads for stories and sources for commentary. Policy makers are also monitoring these social channels. Social media provides an easy connection —and in some cases, instant interaction— with other leaders in your field.

And it’s easy: If you’re using social media to keep up with the sector, field, or issues, de­veloping your reputation as a thought leader is as easy as sharing what you’re reading. Put a link to the article you’re perusing in your Facebook or Twitter feed, along with a line of commentary, and congratulations: You’re shaping the conversation, building authority, and giving voice to your organization.


Online interactions don’t give you the physical and social cues that have guided human interaction for centuries. On social channels, people don’t have to interact with you to de­velop an opinion of you as a person—they can do that completely without your knowledge, by reading your social feed.

But don’t let that scare you away. There are ways to manage boundaries and negotiate your online identity.


If you truly want to establish an effective leadership profile online that supports your organization’s work, you need to be a social media “chameleon”: open and authentic, but selective regarding content and audiences.

Open and authentic, in that a chameleon has a carefully crafted professional persona that authentically represents them. To do that, it’s worth looking up a list of self-assessment questions like the ones Forbes contributor William Arruda suggests for “Uncovering Your Personal Brand,” which include:

Selective, in that it’s critical to understand the audience you want to reach—including the social channels they’re on and where their interests overlap with your goals as a thought leader. Chameleons also understand how social media efforts enhance the thought leadership work already underway—reading, training, learning from peers, taking challeng­ing assignments, etc.

1)     What’s your superpower? What do you do better than anyone else?

2)     What are your top values—your operating principles?

3)     What do people frequently compliment you on or praise you for?

You must also understand your style and tone: If you’re an inspiring leader offline, incorporate that style into your social stream; if you’re a confirmed skeptic who uses humor to make a point, don’t be afraid to crack wise. Another part of being authentic is knowing, and playing to, your personal comfort levels. However you feel about online social engage­ment, there’s a content sharing strategy for that. In fact, a matrix from IBM details nine different “engagement profiles,” but after personally scanning hundreds of nonprofit CEO profiles on Twitter, I’ve found that they boil down to these four:


Re-shares content from the brand, peer organizations, professional colleagues, or influencers. Example: Rich Huddleston of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (@RichHudd on Twitter).


Answers questions from a target audience, either informally or in designated forums like “Twitter Chats.” Example: Helen Clark of the United Nations Development Program (@HelenClarkUNDP on Twitter).


Starts conversations with a target audience, other influencers, or peers. Examples: James Canales, CEO of the Barr Foundation (@JCanales on Twitter) and Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children (@CarolynSave on Twitter).

Content Curator

Seeks out information on the internet, picks out the best stuff, sum­marizes it, and shares it with an audience. Example: Bruce Lesley, CEO of First Focus (@BruceLesley on Twitter).

None is necessarily better than the other— they just depend on your personal style (or even your particular mood), and can all be effective models for thought leadership.

Using social media as part of your leadership profile can help you and your organization brand build authority, influence others, and reach goals.

And don’t just limit your efforts to Twitter and Facebook—LinkedIn is becoming an increas­ingly important platform not just for extending your professional relationships and connecting with leaders in your field, but for publishing original content. Earlier this year, LinkedIn gave a big push to its publishing platform, Pulse, by opening it up to all users and making it a more prominent part of the LinkedIn expe­rience—meaning that anyone with a LinkedIn profile and an article to share (or a blog post, opinion column, news commentary, tip list, etc.) can share screen space with “LinkedIn Influencers” like Richard Branson, Guy Kawa­saki, Arianna Huffington, and Bill Gates.

Using social media as part of your leadership profile can help you and your organization brand build authority, influence others, and reach goals. Best of all: You can get started with a few simple steps (see below).


Beth Kanter is a trainer, speaker, and author, most recently of Measuring The Networked Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World. Find more of her work at www.bethkanter.org.


Getting Started


1. Take a tutorial. Cheat sheets are available online that you can use to teach yourself (or colleagues, your CEO, board members, anyone!) the basic commands for using Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn on comput­ers and mobile devices.

2. Follow peers. Check out what other nonprofit CEOs and thought leaders are doing on social media channels. Play off their topics, respond to their thoughts, or just let your competitive side get the best of you—peer pressure works!

3. Make it snappy. Keep in mind that using social media doesn’t require hours of time. You can build your network while you wait in line for lunch or commute to work (on public transportation— please, no Tweeting while driving).

4. Reach out to a native. Ask a social media native (Millennials are a good bet) in your organization or subsector for help. They can make sure you’re following the best sources, and help you learn advanced techniques like scheduling posts and dividing followers into targeted lists.

5. Check your impact. With an easy-to-use tool like Twiangulate, you can get a sense of your influence by examining the reach of your brand, the reach of your personal accounts, and where they overlap.


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