At LightBox, we’re often asked to support our clients in developing their thought leadership. And it makes sense! 

Non-profit leaders are experts on many things, and the more their expertise is established and reinforced by the media, conference organizers, and others driving conversations, the more influence they should be able to have on the issues they care about.

But as strategists, we encourage our clients to dig deeper into this desire. 

Much like “raising awareness,” the goal of “thought leadership” can function like more of a fantasy than a strategy. The objective is amorphous; therefore, the process is murky, and the impact is hard to measure. 

We often ask people the follow-up question, “How will you know when you are a thought leader?” and it can be a difficult question to answer.

But as of this month, we have a new experience that gives us a solid answer to that question:

Amanda is the board chair and communications chair for NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) and she could not be more proud to share that NAAFA’s Executive Director Tigress Osborn was just named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in global health in 2024.

How did Tigress get there? A LOT of hard work, and some key strategic choices. 

Here are 5 strategies to develop your own thought leadership:

#1 Have a fresh perspective and clear ways to differentiate yourself

Ideally, you are talking about a subject that people are talking about already, but in a unique and intriguing way.

Example: NAAFA is the first and only national fat civil rights organization in the United States. Tigress is one of only a handful of people working full-time on these issues. But that in and of itself does not guarantee people’s attention. NAAFA has to be constantly speaking out and taking action to advance the rights of fat people. 

NAAFA makes an effort to not just respond to news but to make news.

Legislative advocacy has been a major driver of attention to NAAFA’s work. Last year, Tigress advocated for and testified in support of a New York City ban on discrimination based on a person’s weight.

This groundbreaking law—which has since been passed and gone into effect!—has been applied to employment, housing, and access to public accommodations. 

#2 Don’t be afraid of controversy

Being a thought leader often means taking stances that may be unpopular or controversial.

Example: For far too long, fat communities have been left out of conversations about healthcare. Tigress says “Everyone wants to talk about fat, but no one wants to listen to the true experts–fat people!”

But, the tide is shifting. Before her acknowledgment from Time, Tigress had been working day and night to shift harmful narratives about fat health away from weight loss and instead advocating for a healthcare system that considers the impact of anti-fatness on fat people’s health and wellness

Tigress’s recognition is even more significant when you consider the overwhelming obstacles and difficult media environments fat people face. 

As NAAFA’s media study, The Size of It, outlines, media coverage of fat people almost exclusively focused on health and weight loss instead of true justice or wellness for fat people.

#3 Be available to the media

Media availability is crucial for spreading your message and establishing thought leadership.

Example: Tigress consistently engages in public dialogues and interviews. Her ability to communicate NAAFA’s mission clearly and compellingly has been key in not just earning media coverage but influencing, and even changing the coverage. 

She honors every interview request she can fit in her schedule and goes above and beyond in answering the media’s questions. 

#4 Take time not just to respond, but educate

Thought leaders take opportunities to educate others, not just respond to questions or criticism.

Example: With every outreach or interview, Tigress makes the effort to answer the questions behind the reporter’s question and challenge the underlying assumptions and stereotypes. 

She reminds reporters of all the stories they aren’t telling, the questions they aren’t asking, and the people they aren’t talking to. Then she follows up with resources and introductions to other fat liberation activists. 

In the case of a USA Today reporter who was writing a series on “obesity” and reached out to Tigress for perspective, their conversation was so transformative that she ended up dedicating an entire article in her six-part series to the harms of fat shaming and the need to end weight stigma. 

Tigress is now a regular source and resource for the reporter’s much-improved coverage.

#5 Push back

Pushback is often necessary when confronting entrenched beliefs and practices.

Example: Tigress emphasizes that NAAFA’s work isn’t just about boosting fat people’s confidence but about eliminating systemic discrimination. 

She educates on issues such as the lack of proper medical equipment for fat patients and discriminatory practices in housing and employment, highlighting that changing laws is about changing perceptions and treatment in society. 

No matter what the media asks about (fat travel, Ozempic, Oprah, etc) Tigress always brings the focus back to fat liberation.

Since most of our media inquiries revolve around the latest health research and diet culture innovations, NAAFA always reminds reporters that fat people have many more things to talk about than the size of their bodies and efforts to change them.

When the media gets it wrong, as they often do, NAAFA follows up with emails and, if warranted, letters to the editor. And they also refer them to their media study, The Size of It, which quantifies their lack of coverage of fat rights and lives outside of weight loss.

Photo of Amanda Cooper

Amanda Cooper is the Chair of the Board at NAAFA and Senior Partner at LightBox Collaborative.