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

by Gary Dillard

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

A generation ago, business schools were promoting "competitive advantage," or "comparative advantage." An example was the "Chicago boys," businessmen trained at the University of Chicago who in the early 1970s helped remold the economy of the nation of Chile. What Chile had in abundance was copper production owned by the government (after a few expropriations) and a high percentage of the world's reserves. In the ensuing almost four decades, the national copper company succeeded in becoming the force in the industry. Today, its decisions to produce more or to produce less do much to set the market.

A similar term seen today is "unique selling proposition," so commonly used that it's often called simply USP, with no further explanation. That's more apt for nonprofits, which generally doesn't have access to a commodity or other tangibles that it can leverage competitively.

One vital question you must ask yourself, as a marketer for a non-profit, is "what is our USP?" Here's a seven-step process to help you obtain that information:

  1. Gather the leaders of your organization into a room for a one-hour meeting and have them quietly write out precisely what your organization has to offer to its public. Don't let anyone speak or everyone will agree with the first person who talks. That's the best possible way to lose insights that you desperately need. Take about 5 minutes.

  2. Then have each, in turn, read his ideas and let others brainstorm about them. Write all these ideas on a flip chart so the pages can be torn off and posted on the wall. Limit this process to about 20 minutes.

  3. Give each person a chance to add to or alter his own contribution. Take about 2 minutes each.

  4. Use a consensus-generating method to narrow down the definition of your USP to two or three items at most. One would be best, but few organizations seem to be willing to admit to having only one great, unique thing about them. Take up the rest of your hour in accomplishing this.

    Set up another hour-long meeting to accomplish the next steps. This gives your leadership time to mull over and become more comfortable with your USP.

  5. This is a tough one. Decide if your USP is still relevant in today's world. I'm currently working with an organization in our community that has become a respected institution over several decades, but it's having financial problems. Those problems probably stem from the fact that the service it offers is no longer viable. Times changed; it didn't. Worse, it didn't even understand that the world around it was changing.

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

  7. Integrate your USP into your PR and marketing. Do it subtly, of course, but make sure that you are reading over your statement of USP before writing a press release, before talking to the local Rotary Club, before asking a new acquaintance to consider volunteering.

This many not be an easy exercise for long-established organizations and may open the doors to more internal debate than you wanted. But despite this, or because of this, it's important. Perhaps Socrates had nonprofit organizations in mind when he said that "the unexamined life is not worth living."

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About the Author:

Gary Dillard has edited daily and weekly newspapers and trade magazines over the past four decades. He currently is working on a book on PR and Marketing for the Small Nonprofit. A related blog can be found at

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