NGO Science Thought Leaders are Unhappy...But Not for the Reasons You Think

Scientific thought leaders in the NGO setting often get a bad rap — from their managers and/or their peers.

The rap amounts to something like: “They’re not happy here. They want special privileges. They’re prima donnas. They’re not team players.”

To her colleagues and from a bureaucratic angle, a thought leader can often look threatening — even dangerous to program goals or organizational mission: 

  • Because the latest science often outstrips the messaging of organizational programs — which can be based on older science or on no science at all — she veers from that messaging a lot when delivering her insights, frustrating other communications and program staff.
  • She often writes books or blogs or develops talks or videos on her own time — but if she asks for organizational resources or paid time during her schedule to develop that thought leadership content, those requests often engender resentment or resistance.   
  • If the organization has a short media-trained talent bench, she might be asked to talk to reporters about subjects outside her expertise, which earns the scorn of other researchers who aren't getting media opportunities.
  • Because she’s an excellent public speaker, she’s called upon to deliver talks at organizational meetings and donor affairs, further stoking the perception of favoritism. 

Would you be happy if you had to endure the above just to contribute your insights? It’s not surprising that a lot of NGO scientists who have potential to communicate to non-specialists audiences never take the risk. 

If you lead an NGO and you want more thought leadership out of your researchers, recognize this fact: Those researchers aren’t default “unhappy.”

They’re with your organization because they believe in your mission and are driven to make a difference.

They might have big egos — lots of people do. But they're not there to be troublemakers. Mission-driven people want to succeed within the parameters of the organization.

They’re restless at first, not unhappy — restless because they want to make as big a contribution to the mission as possible and are eager to help you reach new audiences. 

They only become unhappy when your cultural and organizational blockers deny them the opportunity to become the thought leaders you need them to be.

They're scientists. They have drive, creativity, and are accustomed to testing limits. They need open space, but also structure and connection.

If they’re unhappy now, it’s because your organization isn’t giving them the opportunity to contribute fully to your success. You’re forcing them to be square pegs in round holes. That’s a retention catastrophe.

The first step is to stop thinking about these incredibly valuable assets as problems, and start exploring how your organization can channel them to your advantage through a thought leadership program that’s integrated into your organization’s strategy, messaging, objectives and incentive structure — and that becomes a pillar of your organization’s publishing and audience outreach strategies and systems.

Key tip: Donors love talking with scientists. A scientist who can translate what's going on in research so that a donor can understand it is gold for your development efforts. Making that happen should be one of the first priorities of your thought leadership program.