April 11, 2018
Your unique approach is something you have probably thought about. A lot. But your position is also something that is dynamic, and shifting as the ecosystem around it does and as you learn more about what works and what does not. When building new programs or approaching new stakeholders, it will be critical that your organizational strategy is in step with the broader context of what’s happening around you.
Differentiation must be your strategy!
Not only does this benefit the most people and prevent duplication of efforts, but it improves your sustainability by ensuring donors and grantmakers do not believe there is a good substitute for your work, and stay loyal to you!
Are you the only service provider in a certain region? Do you have a nation-wide reach compared to organizations with just a local footprint? Elevate works with many different Jewish social service agencies – but the one in Seattle is not competing with the one in Philadelphia or Miami.
Are you the largest service provider of a particular demographic – like middle school students? Or do you reach all the senior centers in a certain county?
Does your theory of change (which we will discuss more at length!) distinguish your work? One of Elevate’s former clients developed their own inquiry-based method of teacher professional development. Do you have a similar method for change that you’ve refined over time?
Do you use best practices in delivering your programs, or a promising new model that makes your program different in exciting ways? Are there features of your programs that others do not offer?
Does your program have a track record that is proven and deep? Does the change because of your program highlight a more effective program?
Does your organization bring unique stakeholder perspectives to the table or ‘uncommon bedfellows’ to work on a common issue. For example, a former Elevate client was committed to bringing evangelical Christians into the progressive movement by highlighting common areas of interest – like care for creation and peace. Another brings military leaders to advice on progressive foreign policy issues.
Do you offer a broader array of services than others or a more holistic or comprehensive experience for participants? Are you a one-stop-shop for a variety of needs?
Do you have long-standing or particularly deep partnerships that make your program more effective or legitimate in the community?
Are you helping to organize other actors in your space? Do you provide some other mechanism for thought leadership? Do others look to you to galvanize a collective response? For example, one of Elevate’s clients is the national leader in the creative aging space and presents at conferences on their work.
Do you have earned revenue or government support, when it is not common in your space? Do you have support from the most prominent foundations or donors, who have invested in your interventions and programs?
Is your Board of Directors, leadership, or staff led by former or current program participants? Does it have people who have first-hand experience with your issue? For example, an Elevate client is the only national organization against torture led by torture survivors.
Has your organization been the fastest growing, or entered new schools, regions, or cities in the past year?
Are there external factors that make your issue particularly pressing? A change in conversation or a world event that makes your work particularly distinctive? For example, Elevate works with a client who is the leading organization working on climate change from a Catholic perspective, and the Pope’s landmark Encyclical letter, Laudato Si’ in 2014, about the care for our common home helped to differentiate their work from other climate organizations at that time.
Are you addressing an issue that others have not tackled before? For example, Elevate worked with a client raising awareness and developing responses to street harassment, which was largely an untapped issue area.
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Because there are always limited resources, it is important that you legitimately do not spend your time and money duplicating efforts that are already working elsewhere. This is more important in the social and nonprofit sector than in the business and for-profit space. If individual investors want to try to compete with an existing enterprise, it is the investors who lose if it does not work out.
However, if your nonprofit wants to duplicate efforts that are already being done, the opportunity cost of other interventions that could be benefiting society in some other way are a public loss, not just a private one.
As an added bonus: clear and meaningful differentiation is essential to a strong fundraising program, and will ensure you raise more funding than if you are competing with similar organizations.