Nonprofit Brand Messaging 101: Nonprofit Positioning Statements (AKA Your “Reason for Being”)

6 min read

As a nonprofit, you can likely think of several organizations in your space that are working toward the same mission you are, and that’s not a bad thing. The nonprofit sector thrives when similar organizations emphasize collaboration over competition, and likeminded nonprofits can often achieve more when they work together.

But this emphasis on collaboration over competition can make positioning difficult. How can you own a clear position in the minds of your stakeholders when there are several other organizations that have a great deal in common with your own, many of which you might partner with or support?

It begins with understanding how nonprofit positioning differs from for-profit positioning.

What is a nonprofit positioning statement (aka a reason for being)?

In the for-profit world, a positioning statement typically articulates a company’s competitive advantage. For-profit positioning statements are often phrased as follows:

COMPANY NAME is the only CATEGORY DEFINITION that UNIQUE BENEFIT.

Or

COMPANY NAME is the best CATEGORY DEFINITION/DIFFERENTIATOR. That’s because PROOF POINTS.

While these competitive positioning statements can sometimes make sense for nonprofits (for example, in a membership organization that competes with other, similar organizations for members), they’re often disadvantageous for organizations that wish to collaborate with and support others in their ecosystem.

That’s why we suggest most nonprofits write their positioning statements with a focus on their “why” rather than a focus on their competitive differentiation.

To make the distinction clearer, we actually don’t call this concept a positioning statement at all. We call it a  reason for being. We define a reason for being a bit differently than the for-profit world defines a positioning statement, but the general concept is similar. Your reason for being is the unique impact your organization is making that no other organization can make in quite the same way. It’s the “big idea” you want to communicate to your stakeholders about what you do, why you do it, how it’s unique and why it matters. 

We suggest most #nonprofits write their positioning statements with a focus on their “why” rather than a focus on their competitive differentiation. Click To Tweet

It’s important to note that your reason for being is internal. It’s meant to codify your big idea before you develop specific messaging to communicate to your stakeholders. While you may come up with some language you want to use externally while developing your reason for being, that’s not the goal. Think of it like building a house: Your reason for being is the foundation that ensures strength and alignment, while your external messages are what people actually see — the paint color, windows, doors and roof. Keeping your reason for being internal also gives you the freedom to be a bit more boastful and truly establish what makes your organization unique.

Why a nonprofit positioning statement or reason for being matters

Without a reason for being, your organization is susceptible to a range of communications problems. Your inconsistent communications will be far more likely to confuse your stakeholders. You’ll be mistaken for other organizations doing similar work more often. And, a single negative story in the media could suddenly become the primary association people have with you because you’ve done little to build up a consistent narrative of positive messages.

Without a reas0n for being, your #nonprofit is susceptible to a range of #communications problems Click To Tweet

A reason for being can protect your organization from problems like these, or at least help you bounce back from communication problems and crises more quickly.

How to create a nonprofit positioning statement (aka reason for being)

Before you can create a reason for being, conduct research to uncover how your stakeholders see your organization and how they view your strengths the “why” behind the work you do. Then, conduct research on how other similar organizations explain what they do. Where do the strengths your stakeholders have identified for your organization differ from the strengths claimed by the organizations in your comparative set? You need to identify why your organization exists and how it is driving change that no other organization can claim to drive in quite the same way.

Then, draft a reason for being that encapsulates your “why” and explains the things that make you stand out. Your reason for being statement should be

  • Simple
  • Concise
  • Committed
  • Grounded in research and comparison to other organizations in your ecosystem

This post explains how to go through the process of arriving at your positioning statement in more depth, but for now, let’s take a look at a few examples:

iMentor Chicago

iMentor Chicago is the Chicago post-secondary success nonprofit best positioned to build a more equitable future for all Chicagoans. That’s because iMentor:

  • Works with every student across the whole school;
  • Recognizes there are many paths to post-secondary success for Chicago students; and
  • Combats the effects of segregation by fostering volunteer mentor-mentee relationships across neighborhoods and lines of difference.

The McCormick Foundation Communities Program

The McCormick Foundation is the Chicago nonprofit sector’s partner for community-led change. That’s because the McCormick Foundation communities program:

  • Prioritizes community voice in its grantmaking approach
  • Focuses exclusively on communities where there is both the greatest need AND the greatest potential for change
  • Partners with community organizations addressing the root causes of Chicago’s greatest challenges, with a focus on race equity

Putting your nonprofit positioning statement or reason for being to use

Now that you have a reason for being, what do you do with it?

Revisit it before every communication or interaction.

Use your reason for being as a gut check when you’re writing, speaking or designing, or if you’re reviewing materials someone else has created. The core of all of your external communications should circle back to that reason for being, which ideally will get explained in key messages that can guide communication as well.

Audit your current communications.

Take a look at all of your existing communications. Does your website support your reason for being? Are your client interactions supporting it? Do even your internal employee onboarding materials reflect it? If not, it’s time to revisit them.

Use your #nonprofit positioning statement as a gut check when you’re drafting any external messages. Click To Tweet

Distribute it to your team and educate them on its use.

Not only should your team understand what your reason for being is, they should understand why it exists and where to use it. Take them through the main points we discuss in this post to ensure they understand the reason for being itself is internal, but to keep its core elements in mind whenever they talk about your nonprofit to an external audience –– including family and friends. If possible, it’s ideal to involve your team and the people your organization serves in the development of your reason for being rather than simply “handing it down” from the leadership team to staff.

Make sure your nonprofit positioning statement or reason for being is reflected in your marketing, communications and fundraising.

 

 

The core of your reason for being should be reflected in all of your marketing and communication materials. How can you make sure that happens? Start with our 101 Guide: Find. Your Nonprofit’s Reason for Being.

 

 

 

This post was originally published on May 31, 2018 and updated on August 27, 2020.

Showing 4 comments
  • Segs
    Reply

    Thanks so much for the post.Really thank you! Keep writing.

  • Canadiancialis
    Reply

    Thank you ever so for you post.Much thanks again.

  • Linda
    Reply

    How is a positioning statement different from your mission statement? Thanks!

    • mmadmin
      Reply

      A mission statement is external-facing and explains the change you exist to drive forward. A positioning statement is internal and explains what your organization wants to be known for.

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