Adapting to future needs.

What Makes Your Nonprofit Organization Unique? A 7-Step Process to Determine Your Unique Selling Proposition

Perhaps more to the point, what makes the public care? What makes you want to send money? What makes you want to volunteer?


A generation ago, business schools promoted “competitive advantage” or “comparative advantage.” One example was the “Chicago boys”, entrepreneurs trained at the University of Chicago who in the early 1970s helped reshape the economy of the nation of Chile. What Chile had in abundance was government-owned copper production (after some expropriations) and a high percentage of world reserves. In the almost four decades that followed, the national copper company managed to become the industry force. Today, your decisions to produce more or produce less do a lot to establish the market.


A similar term seen today is “unique selling proposition,” so commonly used that it is often simply called USP, without further explanation. That’s best suited for nonprofits, which typically don’t have access to a commodity or other tangibles that you can leverage competitively.


A vital question to ask yourself, as a nonprofit marketer, is “what is our USP?” Here is a seven-step process to help you obtain that information:


1) Gather the leaders of your organization in a room for an hour-long meeting and ask them to write quietly and accurately what your organization has to offer its audience. Don’t let anyone speak or everyone will agree with the first person to speak. That’s the best possible way to lose the knowledge you desperately need. Take about 5 minutes.


2) Then ask everyone to read their ideas and let others brainstorm about them. Write all of these ideas on a flip chart so that the pages can be ripped out and taped to the wall. Limit this process to about 20 minutes.


3) Give each person the opportunity to add or modify their own contribution. Take about 2 minutes each.


4) Use a consensus building method to narrow down the definition of your PVU to no more than two or three items. One would be the best, but few organizations seem willing to admit that they only have one great thing about them. Spend the rest of your time accomplishing this.


Set up another one-hour meeting to perform the next steps. This gives your leadership time to reflect and become more comfortable with your PVU.


5) This is a difficult question. Decide if your USP is still relevant in today’s world. I am currently working with an organization in our community that has become a respected institution for several decades, but is having financial problems. Those problems are probably due to the fact that the service you offer is no longer viable. Times changed; it did not. Worse still, he didn’t even understand that the world around him was changing.


6) Assuming your top offering to your community, your USP, is still relevant, determine who your audiences are. That is plural, because you will have an audience for fundraising, another for volunteers, another for clients, etc.


7) Integrate your PVU into your public relations and marketing. Go subtly, of course, but be sure to read your USP statement before writing a press release, before speaking with your local Rotary Club, before asking a new acquaintance to consider volunteering.


This will not be an easy exercise for long-established organizations and it may open the doors to more internal discussions than you would like. But despite this, or because of it, it is important. Perhaps Socrates had non-profit organizations in mind when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

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