Thought Leadership with Geoffrey Melada

Episode aired Jan. 20, 2021: Thought Leadership

As a long time communications expert, Geoffrey Melada of Treatment Advocacy Center is well versed in what thought leadership is and isn’t. It isn’t storytelling and cheerleading for your nonprofit. In this episode Geoffrey discusses

  • who can be a thought leader (it’s not just the CEO) and why a thought leader should be more Yoda, less Luke Skywalker
  • where ideas for thought leadership pieces come from  
  • how to use media and content to transform someone into a thought leader and
  • why your nonprofit shouldn’t try to force someone to become a thought leader.  

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host, Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I am really happy to have with us a communications expert, Geoffrey Melada. Geoffrey, how ya doin today?

Geoffrey: I’m wonderful. Thank you for having me.

Ephraim: A pleasure. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Geoffrey Melada is the director of communications for the Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based mental illness policy nonprofit. Previously, he was the associate vice president for communications at Hillel International and the editor-in-chief of Washington Jewish Week. A former award-winning journalist and trial lawyer, he holds degrees from Haverford College, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and Duquesne University School of Law. 

What Is Thought Leadership

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss thought leadership. Let’s dive right in. Geoffrey, how do you define thought leadership in the context of nonprofits and nonprofit leaders and where do the ideas come from?

Geoffrey: Well let’s start with what isn’t thought leadership, okay? It’s not storytelling and it’s not cheerleading for your nonprofit. It’s not history and it’s not memoirs. Thought leadership is taking the expertise and opinions you’ve gained from your experience as a nonprofit professional and expanding the audience that can benefit from your wisdom. Thought leadership is a gift for other people. It’s not a pat on the back for you or your organization. Your nonprofit is where your expertise comes from but it’s not where thought leadership should be going. I am an expert in something and that something is not the Treatment Advocacy Center. My nonprofit is simply where I flex my expertise.

Let me give you an example. At my last nonprofit, Hillel, the Chief Strategy Officer proposed writing a thought leadership piece about how to run a local Hillel, one of our local affiliates. I persuaded her not to do that because who is the audience for that? The audience for that is extremely limited. So what did she learn at Hillel that could make other people smarter? Well it turns out a lot of things. So the first thought leadership piece we did was about how to thrive during a CEO transition at your nonprofit. We got that published in Quartz. And I might add that is not a Jewish or niche publication. That is a secular, business hub. So that piece was great for her personal brand and great reinforcement for Hillel’s brand as being synonymous with talent. It was a win for everyone.

Now you asked where the best ideas come from. So that piece I just mentioned was inspired by a big change. Change and major transitions can be great thought leadership fodder because people read these pieces to equip themselves for difficult journeys and to achieve difficult quests, to become smarter and stronger. To do thought leadership well, think of yourself as Yoda, not as Luke Skywalker. Be the mentor in the piece, not the hero. That comes from Donald Miller’s excellent book Building A Story Brand. And it’s great advice for all nonprofits.

You know another source of inspiration that’s free? Conferences. In person in the old days and maybe virtual today but that’s a free way to find inspiration. And another is failure. Failure is an excellent teacher. Turn failure into a thought leadership piece that can teach other nonprofits professionally. They won’t laugh at you. They’ll thank you.

Thought Leadership Strategy

Ephraim: Yup. So now we’ll take it one step further. What does a thought leadership strategy look like for a nonprofit organization?

Geoffrey: First step: Define the three or four messages that your nonprofit is presently trying to communicate to the public. Hopefully your comms team and your CEO have already developed these and then assemble the list of executives within your org who have expressed a desire to do thought leadership and can share expertise in one of these areas. Take it from me: Do not try to force one of your nonprofit colleagues to do thought leadership. It’s like pulling teeth and it won’t work. You want to match someone with a burning desire to teach what they know with your current organizational priorities.

Then develop a schedule and a list of target publications and don’t forget to share the pieces when they come out. Like tennis or gold, follow thru is key. Your stakeholders might not read the publication where you published the thought leadership piece. So put it everywhere that your stakeholders are likely to see it. E-blasts, social media, your monthly newsletter etc.

Using External Media And Internal Content

 Ephraim: Excellent. Today’s actionable item: Please tell us 3-4 practical ways a nonprofit can use the external media and its own online content such as website, blog, social media, to transform its talented professionals into thought leaders in their specific niche.

 Geoffrey: Even though the op-ed ad thought leadership space is shrinking in the traditional media, the traditional media is still a place where you can publish thought leadership. It’s just really competitive.

Understand that you have to move fast to take advantage of a news cycle. Let me give you an example: My last job when I found out that Rabbi Charlie Schwartz was developing a guide to hosting a Zoom seder– or what he called a Zeder- I worked with him overnight- I mean we burned the midnight oil and we escalated a thought leadership piece overnight. Because I knew that someone else out there from a competing organization was likely to be pitching something similar. So we hustled and guess where we got it the next day? USA Today, the most widely read newspaper in the country. I really believe if we’d waited a few hours more another Jewish nonprofit might have gotten there first.

Don’t be discouraged though if you can’t break through to the legacy media, because these days as I’ve discovered in my last two jobs, a Twitter thread or a LinkedIn post can reach as many people as traditional media placement. And in terms of reaching your target audience for your nonprofit, a social media thought leadership piece might even be more effective.

I’ll give one example: A black woman rabbi at Elon University. Hillel wrote a Twitter thread about racism that got off the charts engagement. And after that one Twitter thread she was everywhere. In the media, on the speaking circuit, even her face on a poster.

Turning Individuals Into Thought Leaders

Ephraim: Fantastic. Let’s turn to one-on-one. Is it possible to work with a CEO and turn them into a thought leader, someone who people turn to for advice and ideas on how to solve problem X? If yes, could you outline the process involved in that?

Geoffrey: Well the answer is absolutely. Although may I be honest, I would not recommend limiting yourself to just working with the CEO. One of the best thought leadership pieces I ever worked on in my last job at Hillel was with Sheila Katz who was a vice president, not the CEO. And without a doubt the best thought leadership piece that I’ve worked on thus far at Treatment Advocacy Center which was published in the Washington Post in September was with Sabah Muhammad, one of the youngest lawyers and advocates on our staff. 

As I said earlier you, want to match the passion with the knowledge. The process you asked about, the nitty gritty, the tactical process is different with every CEO and every nonprofit leader. I recall that the Head of Information Technology Services at Hillel delivered to me the most camera-ready thought leadership piece I have ever seen. But I recall also working with some executives who had a great conversation with me over dinner to discuss the piece and then when they got into the writing, when they got before the terror of the blank screen, they just couldn’t complete it. So sometimes I had to gently suggest, I took great notes, why don’t you just hand it back to me and I’ll fill in with my notes what I think you want to say and then you can approve it. Be prepared to give light edits, ghostwrite the whole thing or somewhere in between. Be flexible.

Fundraising And Comms Working Together

Ephraim: I remember working between edits and yes ghostwriting the entire thing. In your current role as a director of communications, do you work closely with the fundraising team or are you completely separate? Meaning, does comms have a say in fundraising collateral, verbiage, the look and branding?

Geoffrey: I have never been so lucky. In this current role I’m working with a Director of Development named Renee Smith who tore those walls down. Some nonprofits are very siloed to this day and people have their little fiefdoms, their territories. She is so collaborative and thinks of the whole staff as one team. As a consequence, what does that look like on a daily basis? We are constantly texting each other over Teams to review each other’s content and sometimes she takes inspiration from me on an appeal or vice versa. Development pros have a lot to learn from her about the value of inter-departmental cooperation.

Let’s Learn More About Geoffrey

Ephraim: Fantastic. I wish all nonprofits would work like that. So let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got you started on your communications career?

Geoffrey: Before I was a nonprofit communications professional, I was an editor of a community newspaper and journalists these days, the community newspapers, feel like they have the sword of Damocles hanging over them. I was really blessed. I had a three-year contract and so I didn’t have to leave journalism. But I was inspired by the mission quite frankly of Hillel and I was so excited to get to paint on the largest canvas I’ve ever painted on. I mean it was really a privilege to be the editor of Washington, D.C.’s Jewish newspaper but because Hillel is in 17 countries, when I told a story or I worked with someone to help them discover their voice and tell their story, that story could be seen potentially all over the world. So I really didn’t have a choice. I just ran to that job when I was asked.

Ephraim: That’s pretty amazing. So if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Geoffrey: So it’s hard to limit myself to just one. I would say that we suffer from I think CEO worship in the nonprofit world and one thing that I learned at Hillel was that great ideas, great content, great thought leadership pieces, great op-eds can come from anywhere. One of the best thought leadership pieces I worked on was with a fellow right out of college named Arielle Walovich. She was on a panel… remember I talked about conferences as a great place to get inspiration? She was at the conference and she was supposed to be discussing her fellowship and she didn’t get one question about her fellowship. And I asked her, well, what did the audience ask you? And the audience was all Gen Z and she said every question from the Gen Z audience was how to be an adult. How to be an adult and I said to Arielle, that’s a thought leadership piece and she wrote it up and she got it published. So here was this twenty-three-year-old, in her first job at Hillel as a fellow and suddenly she is a national thought leader. I think if you only look to the CEO as the storyteller in your organization, you’re really missing out.

Ephraim: That’s an excellent, excellent answer. Your favorite social media platform and why?

Geoffrey: So we at Treatment Advocacy Center have done some work, we’ve done our homework and I recommend this to all of your listeners and viewers: Find out what type of content your different social media audiences crave and realize that they may be different. The audiences may be different on different platforms and their appetites may be different. All of our channels add value. But my favorite is LinkedIn. It’s where I met you and it’s my favorite because I think it’s the most constructive. People on LinkedIn are looking to hold each other up, they’re looking for inspiration, they’re looking for best practices and wisdom. They’re not, as opposed to Twitter, looking to be ironic. They’re not looking for chances to tear people down. I think that it’s the greatest platform to connect and teach and inspire.

Ephraim: I really like that difference you just made now between LinkedIn and Twitter. That’s fantastic and very true. You’ve worked for a number of media outlets. What part of being a journalist was most exciting and which part did you dread the most?

Geoffrey: I happen to have one of my reporters notebooks here and this little notebook I discovered can get you into rooms you would otherwise never have been granted access to and it can enable you to meet people you would otherwise never meet. When I was just starting out I think I was enamored of the chance to meet prime ministers and other heads of state and Hollywood celebrities but the truth is I don’t remember what any of them ever said to me. Those are not the interviews that linger in my mind. The best part of the job for me and the stories that I recall the most visibly was meeting ordinary people who had done extraordinary things or ordinary people who had overcome adversity and proved resilience and could by telling their story make other people stronger and wiser. 

After my initial three-year stint in journalism I applied to law school and I wrote my application essay about the four or five regular  people who had inspired me the most and years later, many years later, I ran into the Director of Admission from my law school and he asked me by name about specific people in that essay and where they were today and that really convinced me that much  more so than horse race stories about politics, stories about people are what linger  in other people’s minds and those are the stories I love to tell as a journalist and now as a nonprofit columnist.

Ephraim: Anything that you dreaded the most?

Geoffrey: Well I dreaded the deadlines. I dreaded the deadlines. But you know what? They were good, they were good for me and they were great practice for being a lawyer where the penalty for missing a deadline is not that your editor is angry with you or that a story holds for a week. The penalty could be that your client loses life or liberty or that you get held in contempt and go to jail or you lose your license. So those deadlines were actually really good for me.  

Ephraim: Of the hundreds of stories that you’ve written over the years, whether as a journalist or in a communications role at a nonprofit, tell me one story that stands out from the rest and why.

Geoffrey: It’s so hard to choose one but if I had to choose one, it would be Jordan Zimmerman. You have to hear this story.

Jordan has a non-verbal form of autism and she went the first 18 years of her life unable to speak until the iPad came along and she discovered that with the use of the iPad, she could speak. She found her voice literally and figuratively but that still didn’t solve all of her problems or  fulfill all of her desires. She made it to college and as a freshman, she spent the Jewish holidays, the high holidays alone in her dorm room crying because she didn’t have any friends. Her Hillel dispatched the Hillel professional to her dorm to personally invite her to services and off she went. And that Hillel professional was no longer needed because almost instantly, Jordan made friends and found that she could converse with people and form meaningful friendships with the iPad. And that’s not even where Jordan’s story ends.

From there she became one of Hillel’s nationally, internationally… one of Hillel’s most successful engagement interns, going out and reaching other students who didn’t have Jewish friends and who were yearning for community and welcoming them to Hillel and then from there, she got elected co-chair of Hillel’s International Student Cabinet and became pretty much the face of this international movement. That is the most sweeping, inspiring character arc of almost any story I’ve told in my  20 years in journalism and it was a privilege to meet her and tell that story. That’s why I wake up and go to work every day.

Ephraim: I love that. I just…that’s all I can say. I love that story. Lastly let’s turn the table. You get to ask me a surprise question. I have no clue what’s coming. Go ahead.

Geoffrey: So I got to interview one of my literary heroes a few years ago, the author Annie Dillard and she talked to me about how the city she grew up in, Pittsburgh. nurtured her as a writer. It hasn’t escaped my attention that you have a subtle hidden reference to your hometown in the name of your organization: Jacksonville, Florida. So I want to know, how did Jacksonville set you on this path to be a lifelong storyteller? How did it nurture you as a writer or did it not? Did you need to go somewhere else to start that journey?

Ephraim: So it’s a quick two parts. The first part is that I lived in Jacksonville from ages three to five. So for the company, that’s where my story starts.

My personal journey in storytelling starts after I moved from Jacksonville to New London, Connecticut. New London is a small city right on the shores of the Atlantic. We had access to a private beach, so the entire summer we basically went every single day and I was right on the Atlantic which was very cool. Now that I look back on it and I don’t have access to an ocean in my backyard basically. But there my dad was rabbi of a local synagogue and most of the members of the synagogue were elderly and I was the one of the only kids to show up at synagogue on sabbath on Saturdays and they loved the fact that there was somebody young who actually wanted to hear stories from them. So they would sit and I would ask and they would tell stories. I know my father once told me that he was searching for me, where are you, where are you during services and he goes out of the synagogue and he finds me standing with a person by the name of Mr. Dean of blessed memory and my dad says, what are you doing here? I said, Mr. Dean’s telling me stories of his childhood from Poland and my dad says, go ahead. You’re good. So that idea of storytelling and wanting to tell a story comes from that age 5 to 11 where I literally spent six years around people who were way older than me but who had no problem treating me almost as a young adult and telling me their stories and so it’s that. I can certainly say that in a little bit of a family sense, my family also… it’s family history and family stories. My dad and mom were always telling me stories and so I kind of got that in-house, plus out of house. So that’s where I developed the love of it.

Geoffrey: That’s fantastic and now in this role, you get to help other people find their voice and tell their story.

Ephraim: Yup and I love doing it. I absolutely love doing that. Great question. Thank you.

Geoffrey: My pleasure. Great answer.  

Ephraim: Pleasure. Thank you very much for appearing on the podcast. You can learn more about the Treatment Advocacy Center at  and you can also connect with Geoffrey on LinkedIn. Geoffrey, thanks very much for appearing today. Have a great day.

Geoffrey: It was a pleasure. Be well.