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Funders & donors want to know: What makes you special?

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Donors and funders have many choices when it comes to targeting their philanthropic support. According to 2022 data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 1.6 million registered nonprofits in the U.S. That number has been growing at around 1.4% annually for the past 20 years. This vast number of organizations creates a variety of challenges. Those wishing to make contributions have a staggering number of potential nonprofits from which to choose. Nonprofits themselves have the daunting task of telling their story in ways that are compelling and which attract attention - and support - from potential contributors.


Nonprofit organizations have historically struggled with how best to set themselves apart and clearly articulate where they find themselves in the ecosystem. Perhaps this comes from a hesitance to appear that they are “competing” with nearby organizations, fearing it might come across as disparaging of their peers. Perhaps it’s a lack of adequate language in the sector through which organizations can demonstrate success without having to use absolute statements such as “We are the most critical,” or overused statements such as “We are unique.”


Seen This Before

These challenges were evident to me recently while reviewing applications for Spur Local’s Catalogue for Philanthropy. The application includes a simple question: “Distinguish yourself.” And for many applicants, it was a missed opportunity. Responses were in some cases merely a list of statistics. Others basically described again what they do and – not surprisingly – others simply emphasized, “We are a unique nonprofit.” Some applicants did a good job. They pointed out the aspects of their work or approach that differed from others, which was helpful to see. Most responses, however, left me a little frustrated, wishing I could press the applicant to tell me more. (“Yes, you look like a great organization, but can you tell me what sets you apart from the dozens of other organizations in DC that use [sports, arts, writing, etc.] as a way to engage young people?”) I didn’t want to know if they were “better” than the other groups. All I wanted was to get a sense from them about their distinctive features, what they thought about themselves.


Years ago, I chaired the selection committee for the AIM for Excellence Award (formerly known as the Washington Post Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management) that was managed by the Center for Nonprofit Advancement in DC. During my time, I detected several consistent characteristics that could be seen among the finalists and winners. They were Self Awareness, Self Confidence, and Selflessness. [Click on this link to see my original paper on this topic.] These amazing organizations knew who they were. They knew and understood their core competencies, and they had the confidence to also acknowledge what they were not good at doing. It enabled them to clearly share how they were distinct from other organizations. It also enabled them to establish productive collaborations. They knew what they could do, understood the needs of their participants/patients/clients, and could reach out to other nonprofits that would fill those needs in ways they couldn’t.


What Can Organizations Do?

There are so many organizations doing amazing work in communities everywhere. It would be very exciting to see more of them taking the time and effort to think about their distinctiveness and what sets them apart. It’s an opportunity to celebrate who they are and the great things they accomplish. Here are a few ideas that nonprofits might consider exploring:


  1. Brainstorm with your team to think of innovative ways to say “We’re the best” without suggesting that other organizations aren’t doing a good job, or aren’t there at all.

  2. If you really must use the word “unique” or refer to yourself as the “only,” “oldest,” or “biggest,” etc. do your homework and make sure that those statements are in fact true.

  3. Whether it’s a tagline or a consistently used phrase, make sure your distinctive qualities are woven into all your communications and outreach including your website, social media, appeal letters, etc.

  4. Be proud of your own thoughtful decisions, and boldly acknowledge that you know you can’t be all things to all people, which is why you’re pleased to be collaborating with your nonprofit peer to make sure your clients have what they need.

 

For those who are thinking about starting their own social enterprise even now, this applies just as much if not more. Last fall I spoke to a graduate school class on how social entrepreneurs could secure funding for their proposed endeavor. Whether seeking philanthropic support or venture capital, I reminded them that they needed to have done their homework regarding the competitive landscape, and that they needed to be able to articulate a distinct offering and/or a point of differentiation.


Funders and donors want to be able to make informed, thoughtful decisions when it comes to giving. They know as well as any just how many nonprofit organizations there are out there. Funders receive outreach every day from organizations seeking their support. As the end of the year approaches, families will be overwhelmed with appeals and emails from local, regional, national, and international groups looking for contributions. It can be overwhelming at times. Donors need information from those nonprofits that can help them to discern which organizations are truly in line with their passions and interests. And organizations who can clearly describe themselves, articulate their distinctiveness, and provide context to help donors to make smart charitable decisions will be better positioned to get those grants and gifts in the long run.


Marshall H. Ginn

October 2023


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