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How Your CEO Can Use Social for Thought Leadership

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If your nonprofit’s executive director or CEO a thought leader? Thought leaders drive conversations – online and off, influence others, and shape perceptions in their field. They are the respected voices who others turn to understand sector social change issues.

Many nonprofit CEOs use their social media profiles to extend the reach of their thought leadership and connect with professional colleagues, media, and policy makers. There are significant benefits to both the organization and the leaders themselves by building a thought leadership profile on social. This post covers the benefits and provides some ways to effectively cultivate thought leadership through social channels.


For your organization, a leadership profile online for your executive director can help your organization reach a different audience that may not already be following your brand. Your CEO (and all employees for that matter) will be tapping in their professional networks.

Your logo alone is not enough to build trust for your organization’s brand, it requires a human face to humanize the brand. CEOs are seen as experts on your brand, social change issues, and programs, thus their opinions are extremely valuable and trusted by the people in their networks. Due to the more personal nature of professional networks, brand messages are shared more when they are shared by employees than when shared by the brand itself.

Your organization’s branded social channels will most likely have a formal and structured editorial calendar linked to your policy agenda and other communications objectives. Having your CEO use social in a separate channel gives you more flexibility, especially with breaking news.

Your leader as a champion and personal brand for your organization is going to have less risk than external volunteers or champions. They understand the brand’s mission and value and they know your issues better than anyone else. Your CEO already understands your brand guidelines and will most likely operate within it.

Using social media isn’t just a distraction, it amplifies and enhances the work your CEO is already doing. Most nonprofit leaders have to keep up with their sector, field, or issues anyway – and openly sharing what they are reading – useful content and news with some analysis helps contributes to thought leadership – especially on social channels like Twitter where many reporters use it to source leaders for stories. Since many policy makers (or their staff) may be monitoring social channels, it is another benefit. If other leaders in your field are using social channels, your CEO can easily connect for leadership conversations.

Balancing Personal and Professional: Worlds Collide

But to reap the benefits, nonprofits CEO need to understand how to navigate boundaries and their online reputations. Before social networks and the Internet, it was fairly easy to put clear boundaries between work and personal lives – it was pretty black and white Public/Private and Personal/Professional.

But in today’s world, those boundaries are pretty blurred. As employees of nonprofits increasingly interact with their professional contacts in online social networks that favor individual participation, such as Facebook or Twitter, they are likely to experience a collision of their professional and personal identities

It’s one of the realities of living in a networked world – and as much as it makes us feel uncomfortable – we have to accept it. However, it doesn’t mean it has to be all bad.

Nonprofit CEOs (and their employees) that develop expertise with boundary management and identity negotiation can get past the challenge. That challenge is that using your online profile doesn’t give you the same physical and social cues that have guided out human interaction for centuries. On social channels, people don’t have to interact with you to develop an opinion of you as a person based on reading your social stream. But, don’t let that scare you away, there are ways to manage it.

Managing Boundaries on Social

What kind of social animal are you? What kind of social animal are you?

What Kind of Social Animal Are You?

You have three choices: You can be a turtle, jelly fish, or chameleon. If you truly want to establish an effective leadership profile online that supports your organization’s work, you need to be a chameleon by being open and authentic, but curating content and audiences.

It takes more time, savvy, and online comfort. You also need an engagement and content strategy that complements your organization’s strategy.

How To Be A Chameleon

Chameleons know the audience they want to reach on different social channels and where it overlaps with their organization goals. They also have a good sense of purpose and understand how their social channel enhances the work they are already doing to be thought leaders.

Next, they have carefully crafted a professional persona that authentically represents them. If they are an inspiring leader offline, they’ve incorporated this into their social stream and they understand their style and tone.

Matching Social Engagement and Sharing Content with Authenticity

To be effective on social channels, CEOs need to be authentic. That happens when they match engagement and content sharing with their comfort level. This matrix from IBM illustrates 9 different engagement profiles, but after scanning hundreds of Nonprofit CEO profiles on Twitter, they boil down to these four:

  • Amplifier CEO re-shares content from the brand, peer organizations, professional colleagues, or influencers. Rich Huddleston Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, is an example.
  • Responder: Responds to questions from target audience – this can done be informally as part of how they use Twitter or in “Twitter Chats.” Helen Clarke, UNDP, is an example of responder.
  • Conversationalist: Starts conversations with target audience, other influencers or peers. James Canales, CEO of the Barr Foundation, and Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children are two examples.
  • Content Curator: A content curator is someone who seeks out information and sources on the internet, picks out the best stuff, summarizes it and shares it with audience. Bruce Lesley, CEO of First Focus, is an example


Here are some simple tips for nonprofit leaders to get started doing thought leadership through social.

Is your nonprofit’s CEO using social for thought leadership? How are they a chameleon online? Please share in the comments.

Beth Kanter Beth Kanter

The preceding is a guest post by Beth Kanter, the author of Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media, one of the longest running and most popular blogs for nonprofits. Beth has over 30 years working in the nonprofit sector in technology, training, capacity building, evaluation, fundraising, and marketing. Beth is an internationally recognized trainer who has developed and implemented effective sector capacity building programs that help organizations integrate social media, network building, and relationship marketing best practices. Beth is an expert in facilitating online and offline peer learning, curriculum development based on traditional adult learning theory, and other instructional approaches. She has trained thousands of nonprofits around the world

Topics: Senior Executive Issues