By James V. D’Ambrosio

Nearly two months into 2011 and a brutal Northeast winter, not much has changed for nonprofits. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering draconian cuts to a wide spectrum of programs; in Washington there is a major clash over spending cuts; and legions of well-educated professionals across the U.S. cannot find work. In fact, last week reports surfaced that some employers may be shunning job candidates unemployed for six months or more, fearing a drop-off in skills. Not good, indeed.

But difficult times can be effectively dealt with. Nonprofits can start by tuning out negativity and focusing on what CAN BE DONE to improve things. Doom, gloom and complaining never helped anyone right the ship. Here’s something constructive nonprofits can do: embrace thought leadership.

Thought leadership has been defined in many ways. One credible definition proclaims: “A thought leader is a futurist or person who is recognized  for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable and distilled insights.”  While the term means different things to different people, I believe those with a wealth of creative ideas — and the courage to share them — can help forward an organization’s mission. 

Here are three ways nonprofits can integrate thought leadership into their operations: 

♦ Hire more experienced staff: While initially it is cheaper to hire a less-experienced candidate, it can be more costly in the long run. Oftentimes a more seasoned employee can  draw on a wealth of experience to make better decisions, organize complex projects, introduce new ideas to save money and increase efficiency, remain cool under pressure, and avoid costly mistakes. Wisdom and maturity bring significant benefits that should not be ignored.  

Establish an employee suggestion program: Decision-making need not — and should not — be confined to management. Front-line staff often have a better idea of what is happening with clients, customers and service recipients. Tap their knowledge by encouraging suggestions via  a suggestion box, reviewed weekly. As an incentive, offer a monetary reward or recognition for adopted ideas leading to increased productivity, saving money, or generating new business. Such an initiative also promotes good morale as staff feel a sense of ownership over their work.

Invite an influential, charismatic leader to speak: Take a page from professional sports, where head coaches and managers occasionally bring in well-respected personalities to address their teams before an important game or at a critical juncture in the season. Perhaps there’s someone in your network who could share their perspective on your agency’s mission. Doing so can motivate staff to do their best work.

QUESTION TO READERS: What other aspects of thought leadership do you think nonprofits can benefit from?

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