January 04, 2024
A staple of traditional strategic planning is the notion of differentiation. In order to be successful, the thinking goes, you must emphasize those aspects of your mission and work that separate you from others doing similar work. Not only that, those differences must be distinctive to your organization. That is, true differentiation requires that your organization possess some characteristic that no one else in your domain can claim to posess.
This piece of advice can lead nonprofits to focus on what I refer to as micro-distinctions. (Side note: to get the full sense of the micro-distinction, I urge you to seek out “the best religion joke ever” by Emo Phillips). Too often, the quest for distinctiveness leads nonprofits to highlight non-essential, sometimes trivial aspects of its work.
For example, is your after-school tutoring program distinctive because you hold sessions at the public library while the other program meets in the school cafeteria? Does the segmentation of the student clientele by grade level make each program distinctive from the other? Does it matter that your funding is through a state grant while theirs is from grants and contributions?
To be clear, the segmentation of clients, accessibility of services, and funding mixes are important strategic considerations. But these are not markers of distinction; they are merely descriptions of the strategic lane within which each agency operates as each pursues the same goal.
Rather than seeking distinctiveness, nonprofits are better served by seeking greater awareness of their defining qualities. In short, defining qualities are those characteristics of your program that reflect the DNA of your organization in the form of approach, values, or philosophy. Examples of defining qualities include:
The beauty is that you do not to have exclusive ownership of your defining qualities. However, you do need to be able to step back, look back, and recognize your patterns of behavior and recognize those enduring qualities.
In the end, the advice I offer is the same as we tell our children: you don’t need to be different, you just need to be who you are.
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