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Is Your Organization Too Humble To Compete?

Posted by on October 1st, 2012
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Messaging   

Part of having a strong brand includes making a promise to the world that no one else is making.

When our nonprofit clients seek support for strengthening their brand, we help them explore what is truly unique about their work. While there may be other organizations that do similar things, you’d better be clear about how and why you are different from the others.  It’s the only way to get people excited about supporting you and being humble about it won’t help.

If your organization is working on a challenging social issue, chances are you have colleague organizations working right alongside you to help address it.  Global climate change isn’t going to be solved by one heartfelt nonprofit. Literally thousands of groups are working to address various aspects of the crises.  But they aren’t all alike.  Each has a unique outcome they are aiming to achieve…and it is being clear about that unique outcome that will help supporters who value it find you…and stick with you.

To address climate change some organizations focus on legislation, others on corporate responsibility and still others on encouraging personal behavior changes. And within these categories there are hundreds of organizations doing some variation of this work.  To the people who work in each, the differences are clear. But to the average citizen, donor, or volunteer your work gets categorized as, “Yet another group worried about climate change.”

So how do you make your organization stand out?

We’ve written in this blog and in our chapter in Nonprofit 101 about the difference between features and benefits. Features – the way you get your work done – don’t excite people. But the benefits of achieving your mission — or making strides toward it — absolutely does.  So that’s where you should focus: You must be different from your competitors based on benefits rather than features.

Consider this example. If your soup kitchen is open seven days a week, and your competitor soup kitchen is only open five days a week staking your appeal on a random feature like that is unlikely to excite your donors.  It’s just not different enough for the public to perceive as valuable.

But think deeply about the difference in that example. Your seven-day-a-week kitchen isn’t just open two more days than the other guys.  You believe that people in need should never, ever go hungry.  Or, put another way, you believe hunger doesn’t take a break on the weekends. Now that’s differentiating. And thrilling to donors and volunteers who believe this, too.

We’re all so polite in the nonprofit sector that we don’t even like to think of the other organizations as competitors.  Even though they may be your comrades on an issue, they are also likely asking the same donors for their support, the same activists for their energy, or the same families for their tuition, museum entry fees, or volunteer time. When you’re proud of how you’re different, your supporters will be proud to support you and proud to shout it from their own rooftops.

Digging in to how yours is different from similar organizations means asking and answering questions like this:

  • What do we do that no one else does? (Your uniqueness may lie in the way you combine things your competitors are offering singularly into one interesting outcome.) An independent school may focus on both character building and love of learning, while another promises traditional academic rigor.
  • What promise can we make to our donors, volunteers, clients that no one else has made?

We’ve seen nonprofits struggle uncomfortably in trying to answer these questions.  When it comes time to publicly proclaim their greatness they get humble. They defer to the good work of their colleague organizations, and become reluctant to proudly, publicly, stake a claim about what they are offering that is truly special.

Our advice is this: You can have respect for your colleague organizations and still effectively differentiate yourself from them.

If you start with the premise that your organization was started to fill a void, it can be easier to tease out your difference.

Harken back to your founding. Why were you needed in the first place? If other nonprofits were working on your issue back then, what was it that none of them were doing that called your founders to take action?

Being clear about why you do what you do – and what outcome you’re going for that no other organization is –should be something you do with pride.

When you are clear about why your organization is different you give your would-be supporters a gift:  the opportunity to understand quickly whether you offer them something they value.  You can do this effectively without criticizing your field colleague organizations. Just explain what you offer that no one else does and why that matters.

–Jennie

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Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one impact coach.

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