October 15, 2023

A Nonrprofit Fundamental: Why You Must Offer Standout Value

For two years, I lived aboard a 40-foot motor sailor. When we were underway, I was the navigator and this meant frequent night crossings. Before GPS, this required charts, compasses, and flashlights.

Navigating at night to the Bahamas involves finding one light on a specific compass course surrounded by the night sky, minimal marine traffic, and stars. While anxiety peaked during the early miles—miss the light and hit Africa—once we saw the light, navigating was easy.

In contrast, finding safe harbor on the East Coast of the US was a nightmare.  Entering Ft. Lauderdale, I needed to find the Coast Guard-protected red light that flashed every five seconds. It was embedded in a myriad of illuminations—steady but orange, pink, and red lights. Blinking red lights but faster and slower than five seconds. It was the most intense and hairy hour of navigation on our six-month journey.

Your nonprofit operates in harbors like Ft. Lauderdale, surrounded by thousands of lights, calling, “Give here.” To attract “your” donors and supporters, that is, people with an affinity to you who will give again and again, you must shine a unique light in the night to help them find you. To create such a light, follow “Karen’s Three Rules of Attraction.”

  1. Design a light to shine on your unique location.
  2. Use that uniqueness as a strategic mantra to shape your work.
  3. Shine 24/7, 365 forever.

This article explores these rules.

  1. Location: Identify Your Unique

Your unique identity may be obvious. You provide the only animal shelter in a region. This is an excellent place to start. However, as nonprofits proliferate and lights fill the harbor, your uniqueness can evaporate. Dig deeper. Analyze your community. Know the answers to questions such as: Who’s here? What do we offer that no one can replicate? What do potential donors seek when they don their binoculars and look for lives to change in our field? Consider your most significant disadvantage—reframed. It might point you to where you should locate your light.

When Karen Willis began working as Chief Executive Officer with the Early Learning Coalition of Orange County, approximately $800,000 in funding that might have served her community’s children was going to others, mostly in South Florida. The Coalition didn’t receive this money because it wasn’t able to raise all of the match money required by government mandate. Willis set a goal to obtain $800,000 annually. To obtain it, the Coalition built on its unique role.

The Coalition did not serve children directly. Many would consider this a great disadvantage with donors who love children. What light did the Coalition find in the Orlando marketplace? It impacts all of the pre-Ks in the area—one green light blinking once a second for the children served.

  1. Letting the Light Shape You

Knowing why you’re unique is a starting point. To make your light shine distinctly, use your uniqueness to shape your work. This is not the same as claiming a uniqueness, such as, “unlike ‘them,’ 100 percent of our counselors have their master’s degrees.” Claims represent differences that nonprofit insiders recognize—donors might not even perceive them. They rarely shape a nonprofit’s work. Claims remind me of the auto traffic inside the harbor at Ft. Lauderdale—lots of lights and movement, but nothing memorable to navigate toward.

Using your unique frequency to define you is more than just creating light. It’s about keeping what is and tossing over and over what is not you so you can be more visible to others, just as Michelangelo cut and tossed marble to make David appear out of stone. Letting “light shape you” is about every action to make your light shine brighter.

Over time, your actions chisel your unique frequency into the night sky. The United Way of Lee Hendry, and Glades exemplifies this. Leaders of this United Way affiliate measure their work around the quality of the network they build. The tangible results of shining its unique frequency for more than twenty years is a highly networked nonprofit service community that involves tangible results including:

  • A high volume, high networked 211 system,
  • Nineteen United Way houses throughout the four counties it serves,
  • Great data generation on community needs in real-time.
  1. Constancy: Neither wind, nor snow, nor sleet, nor burnt-out bulbs.

Finally, just as the federal government regulates nautical harbor lights to ensure they shine 24/7, 365 to attract donors, you must constantly shine. Social media, websites, and texting make shining all the time possible. However, because these tools create tons of light pollution, it’s critical that your light is unique and shining in the night sky. Sustainable nonprofits invest in keeping their light shining. They believe that people actively seek their value. They make sure to keep the light on for arrivals, even in the darkest hours before dawn.


You’ve Found Your Unique Light and Frequency When …

1. No one else can claim it—ideally ever. There is only one Feeding America.

2. You like the role. Being the poorest school in town offers little appeal, but attending a school with great diversity shines.

3. It’s got allure–with the donors and supporters you seek. Once I found the Ft. Lauderdale light, I watched it again and again until I was sure.

4. Competition matters less. You graciously acknowledge the light of others without defense. For example, Karen Willis confidently said, “They are a fine organization, but if you want to reach the most four-year-olds and their families in Orlando, then we’re your choice.”

When you’re ready, reach out. Let’s talk. 

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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