Nancy Schwartz asked, “What are your dreams for nonprofits?”

My dream for your nonprofit is that you decide what you are really all about — what makes you different — and that you be that organization, and forget the rest.

Different Stands OutConsider this excerpt from Peter Bregman’s  book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, which I blogged about earlier this week. The inline editing is mine:

“In any highly competitive field—and these days every field is highly competitive—being different is the only way to win. Nobody wants to sell a commodity, and nobody wants to be a commodity. Yet even though we all know that, most of us spend a tremendous amount of effort trying not to be different.

We model ourselves and our businesses nonprofits after other successful people and businesses nonprofits spending considerable money and energy discovering and replicating best practices, looking for that one recipe for success. Here’s the thing: If you look like other people, and if your business nonprofit looks like other businesses nonprofits, then all you’ve done is increase your pool of competition.

Face it: You’re different. And the sooner you appreciate it, the sooner you embrace and assert it, the more successful you’ll be. The same goes for your business nonprofit.”

Yes, I share a lot of “better” practices with you at Nonprofit Marketing Guide. But I don’t do that so you can try to make your nonprofit look like someone else’s. I do that to get you going in the right direction when you are totally directionless, and when you do know where you are going, to inspire you to think more creatively about what you do along that path.

But everything you learn here is ultimately useless if your organization isn’t any different from those around you.

Let me give you two examples of nonprofits with fairly plain Jane missions that could have done things the same old way. But they choose to be different, to own those differences, and to be wildly successful as a result of being different.

What’s Different about Charity: Water

Wanting poor people to have access to clean water isn’t new or different. Organizations have been working on it forever. But what’s different about Charity: Water is how they have focused on connecting donations to a specific well, showing that well under construction, and showing the actual human beings who benefit from that well.

Here’s what founder Scott Harrison advises other nonprofits to do:

“Simplicity is key. Be able to tell your story simply. I can’t tell you how many nonprofits I meet and after three minutes talking to them, I still have no idea what they do. Show. Don’t tell. And do it visually. Use the Web to tell people where their money has gone and let them see what it has done.”

Charity: Water uses the technology available today to broadcast real images and stories, often in real-time, creating a direct connection between supporters and the people around the world drilling the wells and drinking from them. It’s the showing that is so different. Like Scott said, it’s so simple, and yet so brilliant, because no one else did it this way before.  It’s different, and that’s why they are raising a ton of new money for what’s really an old cause.

What’s Different about PETA

Lots of organizations want to protect animals, and are passionate about it. Nothing particularly new or different about that. But everyone knows PETA, right? You may love them, you may hate them, but when you say “animal rights activists,”  most people think PETA.

How did they do that? By being different, and specifically by using sex and celebrity like no other nonprofit I can think of in order to make headlines, gaining millions of dollars worth of publicity.

Sure, they get complaints about nudity. But they explain clearly and convincingly why it works for them, and why controversial tactics are part of who they are. They know what makes them different, they own it like no one else, and they put it to work. They do mainstream “family friendly” stuff too, but they don’t shy away from what makes them different, even if it bothers some people.

Tactical Decisions Can Help You Find Your Voice

Not ready to deal with your overall “brand” or “personality” as an organization? Sometimes it’s easier to let your tactical decisions get you there. Charity: Water wanted to use online tools to show people the impact they have, and the personality of the organization grew from there. Same thing with PETA. It didn’t start with naked celebrities; it started with the need to make headlines in major newspapers.

Be willing to experiment and play with your own communications tactics and you might find yourself stumbling upon what really makes you special.

How Are You Different?

What’s different about your nonprofit? How do you stand out? Share your thoughts here, and make my dream come true!


P.S. Here’s what’s coming up next in the Webinar Series . . .

For Pass Holders OnlyJan 26: Nonprofit Writing Stinks! How to Bring Your Writing Back to Life

For Pass Holders OnlyFeb 8: Help! My Logo Sucks! (featuring Julia Reich)

FreeFeb 16: Helping Your Staff and Board Become Great Nonprofit Marketers

For Pass Holders OnlyFeb 23: Building Your Credibility as an Expert