Insights
3 min Read
December 16, 2014

Positioning: Why you should define your nonprofit’s big idea

Imagine that you have a job interview for a role you know you’d be perfect for. If you went into that interview and baldly stated, “I’m the best candidate for this job, and you’d be a fool not to hire me,” everyone in the room might think you were a pompous jerk.

Still, that’s what you’re trying to convince them. So instead of stating it outright, you might tuck that idea in the back of your head while you interview. You give examples. You demonstrate your knowledge. You show your passion. You do everything you can to reinforce that idea: I’m the best possible candidate, and you’d be a fool not to hire me.

The impression you make determines their attitude toward you, their beliefs about you, and ultimately their behavior toward you moving forward. If you’re successful, you’ll get the job.

This is the power of positioning.

Positioning = what people think about you

Ultimately, positioning isn’t what you say about yourself. It’s what people think about you. You can let that happen on its own—or you can shape it. Start with a clear positioning statement.

A positioning statement is an internal tool, and it expresses the big idea you want to own in the minds of your audiences. Maybe it’s something that differentiates you from other organizations in your field, but the important thing is that it’s one idea.

Keeping your positioning statement simple can be difficult, so remember: your audiences are inundated by marketing messages all day long, and nuances about your nonprofit will be completely lost on them.

So it might help if you think of your positioning statement not as the only thing you hope people know about you, but the first thing they think of. Let’s hope all sorts of positive stuff follows that first thought, but positioning is just that first thought.

Why your positioning statement is an internal (not external) tool

There are really two big reasons to think of your positioning statement as internal only:

  1. You want the freedom to be a bit boastful (“I’m the best candidate for this job”). You can really only get to a strong positioning statement if you don’t have to worry about offending peers, partners, or competitors.
  2. Your positioning statement is not your messaging. Saying “I’m the greatest” (or whatever your big idea is) does nothing to prove your point. Your messaging platform needs to be more convincing. It should show, not tell.

You might land on some language you feel comfortable using publicly in your positioning statement, to be sure, but that’s not the goal. Mostly you’re looking to codify that big idea you want people to think about you.

Using your positioning statement

Once you’ve defined and written your positioning statement, pin it above your desk. It’s now your mantra—a sort of mega goal for your communications especially—and you can use it as a gut check when you’re writing, speaking, designing, or reviewing materials someone else has created for you. Does your website support your positioning statement? Are your client interactions reinforcing the idea? Will everyone who comes into contact with you—at your gala or through a year-end appeal or from a brochure—be given the same impression?

Undervalue positioning at your peril

You’re making an impression on people whether you’re being mindful about it or not. If you’re not reinforcing the same, simple, powerful idea about your nonprofit all of the time, a few things could happen (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  1. Your inconsistent communications will cause people to think you’re a bit of a mess.
  2. You’ll be confused with other organizations doing similar work.
  3. A single negative story in the media will suddenly become the primary association people have about you. Yikes.

The power of positioning

Reinforcing the same big idea in the minds of your audiences demonstrates consistency and professionalism. And once people have that primary takeaway about you, it becomes a lot easier to engage them with the rest of your story—maybe even with some of your more nuanced work (and your messaging about it).

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