April 11, 2018

When asking donors to give their money, volunteers or staff to give their time, and even constituents to participate in your programs – it is particularly important to know why they should volunteer, give, and engage with your organization as opposed to another similar nonprofit.

Therefore, you must know the other organizations in your space, and clearly understand and communicate how you are performing different activities, or performing similar activities in different ways.

One of your most important roles as a nonprofit leader is to see the broader context and communicate it both internally and externally.  Here is an example: Elevate once worked with a charter school who was seeking to raise national funding for its work. When we were brainstorming why the funders should support their work, a school leader explained with enthusiasm about all the learning that was happening in their classroom every single day.

But students learning could not be their differentiating factor, we explained: that is why the local school district funds their work in the first place. That is the bare minimum; it is what they have in common with (most) other schools, not what makes them different or better amid a crowded field.

So how can your organization set itself apart from others doing similar work in your field?

Your Unique Approach

Your unique approach is something you have probably thought about. A lot. But your position is also something that is dynamic, and shifting as the ecosystem around it does and as you learn more about what works and what does not. When building new programs or approaching new stakeholders, it will be critical that your organizational strategy is in step with the broader context of what’s happening around you.

Differentiation must be your strategy!

Not only does this benefit the most people and prevent duplication of efforts, but it improves your sustainability by ensuring donors and grantmakers do not believe there is a good substitute for your work, and stay loyal to you!

How might your organization or program be different? Factors to consider:

Are you the only service provider in a certain region? Do you have a nation-wide reach compared to organizations with just a local footprint?  Elevate works with many different Jewish social service agencies – but the one in Seattle is not competing with the one in Philadelphia or Miami.

Size or Reach

Are you the largest service provider of a particular demographic – like middle school students? Or do you reach all the senior centers in a certain county?

Theory of Change

Does your theory of change (which we will discuss more at length!) distinguish your work? One of Elevate’s former clients developed their own inquiry-based method of teacher professional development. Do you have a similar method for change that you’ve refined over time?

Program Design

Do you use best practices in delivering your programs, or a promising new model that makes your program different in exciting ways? Are there features of your programs that others do not offer?


Does your program have a track record that is proven and deep? Does the change because of your program highlight a more effective program?

Stakeholder Engagement

Does your organization bring unique stakeholder perspectives to the table or ‘uncommon bedfellows’ to work on a common issue. For example, a former Elevate client was committed to bringing evangelical Christians into the progressive movement by highlighting common areas of interest – like care for creation and peace.  Another brings military leaders to advice on progressive foreign policy issues.

Comprehensive or Linked Services

Do you offer a broader array of services than others or a more holistic or comprehensive experience for participants? Are you a one-stop-shop for a variety of needs?


Do you have long-standing or particularly deep partnerships that make your program more effective or legitimate in the community?

Broader Contribution to the Field

Are you helping to organize other actors in your space? Do you provide some other mechanism for thought leadership?  Do others look to you to galvanize a collective response? For example, one of Elevate’s clients is the national leader in the creative aging space and presents at conferences on their work.

Funding Mix

Do you have earned revenue or government support, when it is not common in your space? Do you have support from the most prominent foundations or donors, who have invested in your interventions and programs?

Leadership and Authenticity

Is your Board of Directors, leadership, or staff led by former or current program participants? Does it have people who have first-hand experience with your issue?  For example, an Elevate client is the only national organization against torture led by torture survivors.

Momentum or Growth

Has your organization been the fastest growing, or entered new schools, regions, or cities in the past year?

Timeliness or Relevance

Are there external factors that make your issue particularly pressing? A change in conversation or a world event that makes your work particularly distinctive? For example, Elevate works with a client who is the leading organization working on climate change from a Catholic perspective, and the Pope’s landmark Encyclical letter, Laudato Si’ in 2014, about the care for our common home helped to differentiate their work from other climate organizations at that time.

Agenda Setting

Are you addressing an issue that others have not tackled before? For example, Elevate worked with a client raising awareness and developing responses to street harassment, which was largely an untapped issue area.

Download Elevate’s free Differentiation worksheets!

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This Matters the most for Nonprofits

Because there are always limited resources, it is important that you legitimately do not spend your time and money duplicating efforts that are already working elsewhere.  This is more important in the social and nonprofit sector than in the business and for-profit space. If individual investors want to try to compete with an existing enterprise, it is the investors who lose if it does not work out.

However, if your nonprofit wants to duplicate efforts that are already being done, the opportunity cost of other interventions that could be benefiting society in some other way are a public loss, not just a private one.

As an added bonus: clear and meaningful differentiation is essential to a strong fundraising program, and will ensure you raise more funding than if you are competing with similar organizations.

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