What makes you so special? How to use positioning to differentiate your nonprofit

This is part three in my four-part Identity Heft series. Missed parts one and two? Check them out here and here.


Positioning is the “big idea” you want people to associate with your nonprofit. They hear your name… then what? What do you want them to think next?

A lot of nonprofits don’t get around to that second part — they’re just happy someone’s hearing their name! But “yeah, they sound familiar” isn’t really a foundation for long-term engagement and support. Identifying your positioning will help move your organization from generic do-gooder to memorable nonprofit, both internally and externally.

How to use a positioning statement to set your nonprofit apart.

Psst – Are you on Pinterest? You know what to do!


I, for one, blame this situation on traditional nonprofit funding. The neutral “we do good things” nonprofit blur is safe; you can mold your putty-like exterior to fit any funding application and everyone finds you blandly agreeable.

After all, if you’ve watched any nature documentaries you know that standing out from the herd carries risk. What if you invite controversy? Or a lion attack? What if you lose your funding? What if donors just don’t get it?

I say it’s worth the risk.

Without swerving too far into Disney territory, it’s our differences that make us special. (Aww.) Amorphous putty may get a grant or two but over the long term, special gets funded.

Think of it from a foundation’s perspective — they want to brag about the innovative, impact-laden work they support. They’re looking for something that stands out.

Or how about a donor’s perspective — they want to understand where their money is going and feel confident that this is the way to have a real effect. They’re looking for something that stands out.

Your positioning is what makes you shine. It’s that something that stands out.

Hang on, some of you might say, why not just do what we do? If we’re so unique, surely it will stand out on its own!

Well, my italicized friends, that’s certainly one approach. But are you sure your audience will pick up on the correct defining feature? What if they get the wrong idea?

It’s the same reason I bold some of my text and use weird headers: I know not everyone hangs on my every carefully-crafted word (ahem), so I highlight phrases to make sure the skimmers among you still come away with the right message.

What happens if I don’t bold my text? My audience gets to decide what’s important (if anything) — and you might make the wrong choice.

Your audience should not get to decide your unique offer.

A positioning statement is a clear, uncompromising declaration of who you are and who you want to be. It’s bold, unflinching, undiplomatic, and probably a bit arrogant.

Here’s the interesting thing — a positioning statement gives direction to your messaging, but because it can sound like bragging, it’s meant for internal use only. It should NEVER appear in any external communications.

Think of it as a job interview: you psych yourself up beforehand by being confident and maybe a little arrogant in your head (I’m the best because of X, Y, and Z. No one else comes close.) …but hopefully you’re a little more humble and strategic in person.

You’re simply the best…

It’s hard to offer any concrete examples of actual positioning statements because of that whole internal-use-only thing. Aspirational positions often involve an organization being the “foremost authority” on a topic or the “leading voice” on an issue — neither of which is great to blurt out at a meeting with other authorities and leaders.

The positioning statement can also focus on your approach. Perhaps there’s something unique about your beneficiaries? Geography? Methodology? Tools?

For example, say you are one of many nonprofits working to end homelessness, but your use of technology in your program work sets you apart. You could differentiate yourself on this point — positioning your organization to be “the tech nonprofit” in the homelessness field, and reflecting that in the way you describe your efforts.

Internal use only?! So why bother?

A positioning statement is useful to have because it’s a quick way to tell whether something fits your nonprofit’s identity. If you’re trying to be the go-to authority in bringing political change through peaceful activism, that Facebook post about unicorns might not be 100% on-brand.

A positioning statement shines a light on where you are and where you want to be, giving your path forward some focus. It makes your unique value proposition clearer to internal staff, which in turn makes your identity, value, and impact clearer to external audiences.

Don’t leave your identity in others’ hands. Choose it. Own it.


How well do you know your audiences anyway?

Check out my FREE 7-day email course to identify your many sub-audiences, find them online, and take your first steps toward building a communications plan that works.

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