Positioning your organization for success

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There's a lot of buzz about the marketing tool of "positioning" these days. The term can be a bit confusing. In this article, we're going to define positioning and walk you through six steps that help you craft a positioning statement for your organization.

What is positioning?

Chances are, you have a gut sense of the niche you fill - the distinctive role your organization plays in the marketplace, based on its unique ability to make an impact. Your position within that niche can make all the difference in how people behave toward you.

The marketing art of positioning is the process of getting clear about your niche and where you want to be in it. Positioning flows from your mission. Position doesn't just happen. You've got to take control of it. This requires that you have a clear sense of the organization's future direction. Then it is about building your reputation to be sure that the audiences you want to influence see you the way you want to be seen.

Why positioning is key to achieving your mission

Positioning is long-term and strategic. Little is more valuable than your reputation and, once established, reputations are very difficult to change. It can take years to successfully position an organization and even longer to reposition it.

Some nonprofit leaders think "positioning" is "political" and not a worthy use of precious resources. But this ignores the reality that every nonprofit is competing - for funders, to advocate for a policy, to attract clients and customers, and so forth. Thus, establishing and maintaining your position is one of the keys to successful delivery on your mission.

How mission and positioning statements differ

People often ask how mission and positioning statements differ. A mission statement defines the organization's purpose - its reason for being. It provides the basis for accountability. A positioning statement defines the organization's uniqueness. It provides the basis for reputation.

Here's an example of the relationship for an adoption agency:

  • The organization's mission is to build and sustain nurturing families where adopted children flourish.
  • The organization's positioning goal is to be known for leadership and excellence for adoption in a diverse world.

In this example, the position is clearly at the service of the mission. That's how it should be. Positioning is a tool that helps you better serve your mission.

Examples of successful positioning

Here are examples of three nonprofits that have positioned themselves well on a national scale:

  • The United Negro College Fund - dedicated to opening doors to advanced education for African-Americans; "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."
  • Planned Parenthood - front-line advocates for choice and committed providers of reproductive health services.
  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) - crusaders for aggressive drunk driving policy and action and national leaders in prevention and victim-assistance.

When you have successfully positioned your organization, people recognize who you are and what you do. It makes sense to them. As you build reputation over time you will naturally deepen and expand your realm of associations. As a result, the exchange relationships you seek - and unexpected opportunities - are more likely to come your way.

Effective positioning is like arriving at higher ground. It opens whole new vistas for the future.

Six steps to positioning your organization

There are six steps to creating a positioning statement for your organization:

  • Check in with your mission 
  • Look at needs and results
  • Assess the environment to see how you fit in
  • Draft your positioning statement 
  • Test your positioning statement
  • Refine and clarify your niche

1. Check in with your mission

The positioning statement you develop should be a direct expression of your mission - the organization's reason for being. If your mission is concise, easily understood, and provides the right sense of direction for the future, you can go on with positioning. If the mission is at all murky or there is disagreement in your group about what the mission should be, it is important to get this resolved. You may simply need a rewrite to bring things up to date or it may be necessary to take an in-depth look.

2. Look at needs and results

Meeting needs and getting results - both present and future - is the crux of your unique role and the driving force behind positioning. Because conditions aren't static, every successful organization's role undergoes change over time.

As you look closely at ongoing and emerging needs, opportunities for improvement and change flow naturally. You may decide to strengthen your results by adding, dropping, or improving programs. You may also consider offerings for entirely new audiences.

Years ago, in the "good cause" era, most nonprofit organizations positioned themselves as meeting compelling needs. A good cause is no longer enough. Positioning must also be based on results: The changed lives and changed conditions that come about through the organization's work.

Marketing wisdom: Don't spread your energies too thin. You will make the greatest impact if you are highly focused, concentrate your energies on being the absolute best at what you do, and have compelling results to show for it.

3. Assess the environment to see how you fit in

Most nonprofits exist in an environment that is at once competitive and collaborative. It is essential to consider how you fit in. Are your offerings true standouts? Or has competition made a mess of your niche? Can you forge ahead alone and achieve strong results? Or are partnerships the best approach? 
To answer these questions you will need to identify potential competitors and partners in your marketplace and learn more about them to see how you fit in. That readies you to asses the unique contribution that only you can make.

At this point, you confirm challenges to the role you want to play and decide whether you would be most effective teaming up, going it alone, or dropping out altogether. Once you know where you stand, you're ready to draft your preliminary positioning statement.

4. Draft your positioning statement

Positioning statements are not advertising slogans. Rather, they are straightforward and exact expressions of the organization's unique identity.

A strong positioning statement meets four criteria:

  • It uses everyday language, avoiding technical, insider terms of your field.
  • It conveys the organization's character.
  • It is crisp and action-oriented.
  • It says how you want to be known.

Take a second look at the three organizations cited earlier - The United Negro College Fund, Planned Parenthood, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Note how each statement meets the four criteria.

To craft your positioning statement, first work with a group to summarize the conclusions from steps 1, 2, and 3. Then have the group brainstorm lots of possibilities. Finally - and this is best done by ONE person - write up a statement that captures the group's creativity. Use the group to review drafts, makes suggestions, and approve final wording.

5. Test your positioning statement

After drafting your statement, you know what you believe your niche should be. It is time to confirm the viability of how you want to be known with other critical parties.

To test for support, prepare a short presentation of your positioning statement and the rationale behind it, identify the key people or groups whose support is most crucial to your future success, and make an appointment to talk with them. This should include:

  • Those you serve: program participants, audience members, or those who directly represent them.
  • Community opinion leaders.
  • Funders and policy makers.
  • Key board members, volunteers, and staff.
  • Internet marketing experts.
  • Mentors and other people whose opinion you respect because they are wise or a longtime observer of the scene.

6. Refine and clarify your niche

To refine and clarify your niche, revise your positioning statement, taking into account the useful feedback you have received. Some reactions may be provocative, challenging you to rethink your approach, more carefully examine risks, or raise your sights even higher. It's rare, if you feel strongly committed to what you have developed, that you will receive no support whatsoever. However, there are ideas that come ahead of their time and evoke outright opposition. It could be you've thought up a real dud, but remember that what is now the League of Women Voters got its start as a radical fringe.

Again, it can be helpful to talk through ideas and possible changes in a group, but return the statement to your writer for final revisions.

This article first appeared in the October 2005 edition of Fieldstone's Tools You Can Use e-newsletter, and is reprinted with permission.

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