A free resource for nonprofit organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations,
public sector organizations, and other mission-based agencies

Jayne Cravens, www.coyotecommunications.com

Online Leadership / Influencing Online
For mission-based organizations (nonprofits, NGOs, government agencies, etc.)
In October 2015, I had the pleasure of being the Duvall Leader in Residence at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Leadership Development (CFLD), part of UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, in Lexington. My visit was sponsored by the W. Norris Duvall Leadership Endowment Fund and the CFLD, and focused on leadership development and community development and engagement as both relate to the use of online media. It was a fantastic experience!

Among the many workshops and consultations I presented in my four and a half days in Lexington was one on leadership online - not only about how a person can lead a team, but also how a person can demonstrate leadership online. It was one of the hardest to put together, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting. Hence why I wanted to create this new page on my web site.

There is plenty of information about leading and supporting a team online, but I wanted to focus specifically on this new web page on online leadership, on engaging in activities that influence others online, that create a profile for a person as someone that provides credible, important, even vital information about a particular subject. To me, leaders are looked to for advice, direction, knowledge and opinions on specific subjects, and their online activities, collectively, influence the thinking of others. And they engage online - they don't just post information. They discuss, they acknowledge reactions and feedback, they even debate.

Leaders are Influencers

There's a difference in advertising versus influencing, or leading, online. Advertising is certainly necessary, but mission-based organizations need to also be thinking about how they will influence people online, how they will LEAD online, how they will guide and inspire others to new understanding, new ways of thinking, even changes in behavior. A nonprofit or government initiative has a mission, and their online activities need to educate people about that mission, create excitement about it, show how it is relevant/vital, and position themselves as key players in addressing issues related to that mission.

I break it down this way:

ADVERTISING: Announcing the dates and times of events, start dates and fees for new programs, deadlines, fundraising needs, etc.

INFLUENCING: Build awareness regarding a cause, offering messages and sharing information that could change minds, commenting on legislation, national or local news, etc. in such a way as to position an organization or a person as a key player in addressing that issue.

How people influence online through activities

People that want to influence other people online undertake a number of activities, including:
  • -- commenting in the comments section below a newspaper article online
  • -- commenting in the comments section of a blog
  • -- posting on Facebook (status updates, starting discussions, asking questions, commenting on the status updates of others, such as nonprofits, government initiatives, university programs, local “thought-leaders”, etc.)
  • -- tweeting, responding to tweets, participating in tweet chats
  • -- blogging
  • -- participating in online discussions via LinkedIn, other online discussion groups
  • -- posting videos on YouTube or Vimeo, and commenting in the comments sections of these sites on other videos
  • -- using other tools to offer advice, express opinions, ask questions, etc., such as Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, etc.
  • -- they post online regularly; it doesn't have to be every day, but has to be enough to stay on people's minds
  • -- talk offline about what is happening online

  • Leaders online aren't just sharing information and opinion through their own social media profiles; they are doing so on other people and organization's online spaces.

    How people influence online through content

    The aforementioned noted where and how influencers post online. But what content do they post? They (not an intern, not an assistant):
  • -- provide relevant, even vital, content or perspective related to the subject with which they want to be identified
  • -- ask questions that spur thought and discussion
  • -- confront, even debate
  • -- provide content in a way that's particularly accessible (for instance, it's FUNNY, or it eschews jargon)
  • -- are consistently truthful and credible
  • -- address online criticism promptly, honestly, sincerely
  • -- show they are listening to what others say online
  • -- respond quickly to questions or replies to their comments
  • -- talk openly online about what is NOT working at their organization, challenges, etc.

  • The comment about using humor proved controversial during my discussion in Kentucky. An attendee said humor was best avoided, particularly in multi-cultural settings, because it could be misinterpreted. I just couldn't disagree more; while not every joke is universal, humor most certainly is. Humor has been vital in my success at working abroad. Indeed, knowing your audience and its culture is vital; but to avoid humor is to avoid one of the best ways to connect on a very human level.

    It Takes More Than One Message

    One message, or one blog, doesn't indicate a person's leadership online. Rather, it's a body of work and activities online, and how often that work gets referenced by others. How many followers a person had on Twitter isn't an indication of leadership; how often their online work is shared, referenced, retweeted, commented on, etc. is a much better indication.

    Examples of Leadership Online

    There are a LOT of people that, through their online activities, influence my work and my thinking. People that I believe are leaders online, that do most or all of the aforementioned, include the following:
  • -- Chris Reardon, @scoop_reardon, Chief of Content Production for UNHCR/@refugees. He does a great job of balancing comments with retweets and breaking information about refugees. His posts aren't just about what is happening regarding refugees, but why. 
  • -- Mehmet Erdoğan, @mehmeterdoganIV, digital communications and content specialist for @UNDPEurasia. Tweets regularly with keyword #tech4peace.
  • -- Ethan Zuckerman, @EthanZ, Center for Civic Media, MIT Media Lab, Global Voices, Berkman Center. He provides good insight into global trends in online communication.
  • -- Chris Kluwe, @ChrisWarcraft, former kicker for the Minnesota Vikings who has been a strong advocate for gay football players and women online gamers. I'm fascinated at how he advocates these causes with intelligence and humor, and how he responds to critics online.
  • -- Liza Dyer, @lizaface: "volunteer engagement, nonprofit stuff (communications & technology)." She does a great job of balancing information and humor to make important points about community engagement.
  • -- Sue Jones, @suevjones, manages #ttvolmgrs tweetchat, a Thursday online event where managers of volunteers all over the world discuss a different topic each week.
  • -- Dan Savage, @fakedansavage: Columnist, Savage Love, which discusses sex-related questions and frequently delves into politics, and the co-created of the It Gets Better campaign. He literally redefined a politician's last name in response to that politicians views regarding gay people.
  • -- Hend @LibyaLiberty “I am East and West, citizen and refugee. The melting pot is a failed paradigm-maybe more like a tossed salad. I am an international crouton.” Commentary and insights on the Middle East that is mostly overlooked by mass media.
  • -- Susan Ellis, Energizeinc, “Hot Topic of the Month,” a provocative monthly online column regarding some aspect of volunteerism.

  • These are people that influence me and my work in a number of ways, that I feel compelled to seek out and read regularly, and that often change the way I'm thinking about a particular topic, and they influence me mostly through their online activities. Your list of leaders online will be different. 

    Media Monitoring

    A key to leadership online is knowing what people are saying about you and your organization online, and responding appropriately, as well as knowing what is being said about a particular topic. The Internet makes finding this out super easy. For instance, you can use GoogleAlerts or a similar tool to track what is being said about you, your organization, subjects that are most important to you, etc. Also, ask your volunteers, staff and others to let you know, as a courtesy, what's being said.

    I also take time at least three times a week to read Twitter for at least 30 minutes at a time. I read through the tweets of those I follow, and I pick at least one of my lists to review. I don't wait for time to do this; I make the time to do it.

    I used to participate much more in online discussion groups devoted to topics in which I am most interested. My participation in these groups has dropped hugely. But I do still check in with these groups periodically, and it's worth noting that I have been seen as a leader online largely because of my participation in such online groups. Online discussion groups devoted to specific topics are much harder to find than they were in the 1990s, but they are still worth looking for and participating in.

    A work in progress

    All pages on my web site are a work in progress, including this one. I would love to add more to this page, particularly references to others that have written about leadership online, but I'm having quite a lot of trouble finding such. As I find materials, I will expand this page. Your contributions are welcomed.

    If you found this page helpful, let others know:

    Also see:

    My academic / research work at my profile on academia.edu. Most of the academic articles that have cited my work regarding virtual volunteering are listed at my Google Scholar account.