Thought leadership is probably a phrase destined to be thrown out as a ‘buzzword’ or ‘jargon’. The sentiment behind it, though, is important, particularly for organisations working to tackle complex social or environmental problems.
I used the Charityworks impact research assignment as an opportunity to research this idea within and beyond my organisation. I wanted to better understand how people set themselves apart as thought leaders and why.
As I see it, to be a thought leader is to be an outward-looking expert, disseminating original and credible content. Like Lucy Hurst-Brown, Chief Executive of Brandon Trust says, “thought leadership is about pushing boundaries and moving the agenda forward”.
So for charities, thought leadership requires looking beyond the organisation’s interests, beyond its own initiatives, even beyond its direct beneficiaries, and thinking more broadly. It is not enough for a charity to be an expert; it must share opinions and practice to change the landscape in which it works.
At a time when funding is getting increasingly hard to come by and staff are stretched, it can be hard to justify time and money spent on blogging and media engagement. It’s vital, though, that organisations continue to share their knowledge, their ideas, and their criticisms, so charities can learn from each other, develop, and challenge the systems they’re working to change.
Of course, the argument that business guides will proclaim is that thought leadership helps to generate income, and it may well do, but for true thought leaders that’s a side effect and not the end goal. It is passion and credibility that makes thought leaders exciting.
Whilst working in communications in a learning disability charity, I’ve looked at how an organisation can position itself as a thought leader, thinking about how our knowledge and experience can contribute to the sector and the lives of all people with learning disabilities.
Successful thought leaders are doing two important things. Firstly, they are putting the voice of people with learning disabilities at the forefront of their communications. They recognise that people receiving support are the experts; they listen to and project that voice. By doing this, organisations can take a stance on key issues which is informed by those affected.
Secondly, they take risks. We can’t push an issue forward if we’re afraid to court controversy or take sides. It’s at the brink of provocation that change is brought about. As regulation changes the way charities can speak out, it’s ever more important that we use the available methods to raise public interest and challenge systems.
By attempting to be a thought leader, organisations create compelling, challenging content, which draws attention to them and the issues to which they’re dedicated. So while discursive communications may not feel like a priority, it’s fantastic for the sector to have these public discussions about best practice and problems, in order to reach more people and drive social change.