By James D’AmbrosioJamesProfile1

Many in nonprofit consider themselves thinkers — thoughtful, caring people concerned about those who are less fortunate — people struggling with disabilities, poverty,  homelessness, serious medical issues, etc. Indeed, I’ve found many such individuals. But let’s reach a bit higher, tackling a business concept with implications for nonprofits: thought leadership.


What exactly, is thought leadership? Good question. Depending on who you ask and their line of work, you’ll get many different answers. You won’t find it in the dictionary; it’s considered more of a business buzzword. LinkedIn says “thought leader is business jargon for an entity that is recognized by peers for having innovative ideas.” Wikipedia explains, “Thought leader is management terminology for a person or an entity that is recognized by peers for having progressive and innovative ideas.”

According to Wikipedia, the term was coined in 1994 by Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of Booz Allen Hamilton’s magazine, Strategy & Business, where ”thought leader” described magazine interviewees considered to have ideas worth discussing. Early thought leaders include Charles Handy, a British management thinker; Paul Romer, a Stanford economist; and Mitsubishi president Minoru Makihara. Today, Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change,” is often mentioned.

Progressive, innovative ideas are good, but let’s go further. Peter Cook, a best-selling author with 15+ years’ experience as a consultant and business coach, cites Matt Church, founder of Thought Leaders, a training company in Australia that’s expanded to the U.S., India and Europe, as promoting the concept in Australia in 2004. Church contends that an expert used to be someone who knew stuff. Now, an Internet connection allows people to get more information than they will ever need (i.e., Google). This has led to a vacuum in meaning, relevance and engagement, something Church says a thought leader must provide.


So how might thought leadership apply to nonprofits? I don’t have a definitive answer. However, given my background and experience, I’ll provide an example of what it could be: taking the long view. This essentially means accepting reasonable short-term sacrifices to realize long-term gain. For example, suppose your top development staffer suddenly/unexpectedly left and the position sits vacant. Now you’re forced to balance immediate need (new hire) against long-term gain (fund-raising some years out). The long view resists a quick hire and spends the necessary time finding a good fit.

Granted, some agencies may not have the financial resources to do this. But, if you consistently took the long view with major decisions (new hires, computer upgrades, facilities, new board members), over time, you’d have a fighting chance for greater returns — building a financial cushion — to avoid settling for short-term fixes. In fact, you could create a business environment perpetually feeding on itself, like a snowball rolling downhill. Too ivory tower? Perhaps. But something worth considering.


There’s no right or wrongs here; rather, differing perspectives on what constitutes thought leadership and how it might apply to nonprofits. Frankly, I do not profess to have all the good ideas (in fact, I’m quite humble and democratic). Therefore, I welcome reader input on this issue to move towards actionable ideas and strategies agencies can use to better meet mission and serve others. What’s your take?


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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