Why should I support you?

Time and time again I encounter organizations who cannot articulate their unique value. They can talk at length about the work they do and why it’s important, but they don’t have a solid argument for why their work deserves support over all the others out there. 

If there were no other organizations out there doing similar work, you wouldn’t need to say why you’ve chosen the work you’re doing nor tell me why you’re the one best suited to do it. But in a world where lots of organizations are doing similar and even overlapping work, and where donors and funders have access to many options for their dollars, why should anyone support you instead of someone else?

Think about the way for-profit businesses try to distinguish themselves from the competition. Verizon has the most extensive network. AT&T has the fastest network. Sprint has the cheapest plans. All three overlap in their work but they have found ways to distinguish themselves from the competition and answer the question: why you?

Look, I’m not a fan of competition, but that’s the reality. There are other organizations working on the same issue as yours. They have made a case for why their work is important, so why should I support you over them? Donors have a limited capacity to give, and oftentimes a limited willingness to give to unfamiliar organizations. What’s your argument for why you – your approach, your work, and your qualifications – are worthy of support?

Quite honestly, some organizations are doing redundant work and donors are better off giving their money to someone with more experience and expertise. But many organizations are doing great, important work – they just don’t communicate how they provide a unique value to solving the problem

Every organization should be able to say why they are doing their work and why they are best suited to do it. Your organization has chosen a particular approach to the problem, one that you believe will succeed. Why did your organization choose its approach, out of all the different possible approaches? Why is your approach the better or most valuable one to take? And why are you the best suited to do this work and succeed?

Here’s a few possible ways to answer these questions and set yourself apart:

  • We are distinctly different. Others may be taking a similar approach, but there is a distinct element to your approach that makes it more valuable and/or more likely to succeed. Here you would need to describe how your approach is different and better for solving the problem.
  • We’re filling a gap. No one else is taking the approach you are but there is a strong need for it. You would have to demonstrate why your approach is necessary, and how the problem won’t get solved without it. 
  • We’re engaging a critical audience. You are using an approach used by others but working with a group that no one else is addressing. You would need to show that this audience is essential to the cause.
  • We have unique expertise. You may take the same approach as others but you have a unique skill set that makes you more qualified to succeed. For this argument, you would need to clearly demonstrate that your organization’s expertise is distinct and superior to others.
  • We have a proven record. You may have chosen the same approach as others but you have done a better job at achieving results. You would need to demonstrate concrete and measurable differences between your accomplishments and others like you.

In a competitive landscape, it’s not just about why what you do is important, but why what you do is more valuable than other options. Are you a Verizon or an AT&T? What makes you stand above the rest? What makes you more likely to succeed? And why should someone support you over all the other organization’s in your field?

Whether you like it or not, there’s competition for others’ support. So know your unique value and make sure to communicate it as clearly and as often as possible.

Do you know your competition?

No person is an island, and neither is an organization. All organizations exist within an ecosystem of other actors who are working on the same issue

Organizations are often familiar with their partners – those they work with who help them carry out their work – but not as many are aware of other peers – those they don’t work with who take similar or different approaches to the same issue. 

Knowing the full ecosystem of actors can be very valuable to organizations. For starters, it can help you to identify potential partners who can advance your work and your cause. The idea of collective impact was created to encourage organizations to think about how they can work together to achieve more than any one individual organization could. While there are challenges to teamwork, there is also a lot of value of coordinating and collaborating your efforts with others. 

Moreover, it can be a challenge to achieve your mission if your work is in direct competition with another organization. If you’re taking the same approach with the same constituents, you will constantly be competing for resources and attention. Understanding what everyone else is working on allows you to identify the gaps and opportunities to avoid competing with others. It makes your organization more strategic and will make your organization more effective and more efficient in the long run.

And if you want to attract support to your organization, you need to know what sets you apart from others. Of all the organizations working on this issue, why should people choose to support you over the others? Determining your unique value proposition means knowing what makes you unique and the only way to know that is to know who your competitors are. Once you can identify that special something that makes you stand out from the rest, it will be easier to craft effective messages. 

A competitive analysis is an assessment of the other actors in your field – a scan of other actors, what they do, and how they are similar or different from your organization. Many organizations never conduct a competitive analysis, and as a result, they miss opportunities to collaborate with others, they waste time and effort submitting grants to funders that are committed to other organizations, and they have trouble articulating their unique value proposition. (In fact, many organizations I know don’t realize that what they think is their unique value isn’t actually all that unique…) 

To conduct a competitive analysis, start with the organizations you’re familiar with – partners, direct competitors, and those that work with the same constituents. Then start expanding to others who work in the same geography on the same issue. You don’t have to include every organization – just the ones that are relevant to the space you occupy in the ecosystem. This will help you identify areas of mutual interests and areas where you occupy a unique niche.

If you want to get the most out of a competitive analysis, include information about who funds what organizations and to what extent. Understanding the funding landscape can help you see opportunities for new funding and be more selective – or creative – in where you pursue funding. For instance, if a competitor is supported by a particular funder, you might choose to focus on funders that aren’t committed to that organization yet. Or you might pursue co-funding with another organization to get more support for your work and more exposure to a new funder. But you won’t know what potential awaits until you look.

And that’s the whole point: the more of the bigger picture you can see, the more opportunities for collaboration, enhancing your work, and articulating your unique value you can find.

So try a competitive analysis with your organization and see how it can improve your organization’s effectiveness and build your base of support.

What makes for a great leader?

Every organization should be a leader – a leader of a cause and a leader of a community of supporters for that cause. Leadership is the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of a vision or a set of goals, and mission-driven organizations need to successfully bring people together to accomplish long-term impact.

But what makes for a good leader? Let’s take a look at what the research says about the traits and behaviors of individual leaders and then apply it to organizations.

Personality traits

When looking at the characteristics of leaders, there are certain personality traits that are important for their emergence and effectiveness. Extraversion is probably the most important trait, though it’s more strongly related to how leaders emerge than their effectiveness. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: extraverts enjoy talking to others, are comfortable with groups of people, and know how to assert themselves (though being too assertive can make a leader less effective). Conversely, introverts prefer to be alone and don’t like being in front of a crowd, which might make it difficult to attract, retain, and bring together followers.

Conscientiousness (self-discipline and responsibility) and openness (to new ideas and experiences) also show strong relationships to effective leadership. Leaders who are disciplined and keep commitments (conscientious) and who are creative and flexible (open) are more likely to be successful leaders.

Emotional intelligence (EI) – the ability to recognize and regulate emotions – is also an important trait. Someone may have a great vision, excellent training, fantastic ideas, and a highly analytical mind and still not make a great leader without EI. This is because a core component of EI is empathy – being sensitive to others’ needs and feelings. A leader who effectively displays and manages emotions will find it easier to connect with and influence the emotions of followers.

Charismatic leadership

Charismatic leaders are those to whom followers attribute heroic or extraordinary leadership abilities based on their behaviors. (Fun fact: the word charisma is from the Greek for “gift.”) There are four key characteristics of charismatic leaders:

  1. An articulated vision. They express a better future as an idealized goal, and they are able to state the importance of the vision in terms that others understand.
  2. Personal risk. They are willing to put themselves out there, incur high costs, and sacrifice themselves to achieve the vision.
  3. Sensitivity to followers’ needs. They are perceptive of others’ qualities and responsive to their needs and feelings.
  4. Unconventional behavior. They do things that are considered novel or even contrary to social norms.

Charismatic leaders can gather followers by presenting a clear and compelling vision, standing by their values, and being attuned to the needs and feelings of others. Of course, there are charismatic leaders who aren’t effective – the ones who are so larger than life that they pursue their own personal agendas – and the effectiveness of a charismatic leader can depend on the context and the vision itself. (After all, Hitler was a charismatic leader who convinced others to pursue a disastrous vision…)

Transformational leadership

There’s a whole body of research dedicated to differentiating between transactional leaders – those who guide followers towards goals by clarifying roles, tasks, and rewards – and transformational leaders – those who inspire followers to transcend their self-interests for the good of the organization.

It is important to note that these two modes of leadership are not in conflict. Transformational leadership builds on transactional leadership, producing levels of effort and performance beyond what transactional leadership can do.

So what characterizes transformational leaders? How do leaders get their followers to go above and beyond for the cause? There are four key qualities:

  1. Individualized consideration. They give personal attention to each follower and treats them individually.
  2. Intellectual stimulation. They promote intelligence, rational thinking, and careful problem solving.
  3. Inspirational motivation. They set high expectations, use metaphors to focus others’ efforts, and express important values in simple ways.
  4. Idealized influence. They provide a sense of purpose, instill pride, gain respect, and build trust.

Like charismatic leaders, transformational leaders present a clear vision, but they also work to build consensus, increase follower self-efficacy (that “can do” spirit), and engage followers in taking on the responsibility of achieving the mission. Organizations with transformational leaders have more decentralized management and give followers a greater sense of autonomy.

Organizational Leadership

So what can organizations learn from all this? How can an organization as a whole serve as an effective leader that rallies support for its cause and its work? Since a list of fours seems to be the theme in this post, here’s another:

  1. Present a clear vision and purpose. In your communications work, be sure to articulate your idealized version of the world and how it’s better than the current situation. Explain why it’s important, what the benefits are, and what it means for your audiences and what they care about.
  2. Be sensitive to your audiences. Whether it’s your constituents, your partners, your funders, your donors, or your supporters, always be empathetic, understanding, responsive, and open-minded. Keep the lines of communication open, seek out feedback, ask what you can do for others, give personal attention, and make time for people. Trusting relationships are how we get things done, but they must be built and maintained with compassion and authenticity.
  3. Set a good example. There’s truth in the adage, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” As a leader in the field, you should stand by your values, stay true to your word, and follow through on your promises and commitments. You should also be grounded, reasonable, rational, evidence-based, and level-headed – qualities that earn respect from people on all sides of an issue.
  4. Instill greatness. If you want people to follow you, it’s not enough to just show them the path towards your vision. You want to be transformational and inspire others to walk that path. Stay positive about the road ahead so people believe change can happen, but also be realistic about the challenges. Empower others to take action by talking about their role in creating change and giving them opportunities to do something concrete. Make your supporters feel connected and involved in the organization, and let them take some responsibility for the organization’s progress. Followers want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, something important and meaningful.

Organizations must connect with others and bring them together for a common goal. Just as individual leaders do, organizations must exhibit the right traits and behaviors to rally support and earn the respect, trust, and admiration of others. If you want your organization to succeed, invest in becoming a leading organization – one that inspires others to join your cause and helps you in achieving your mission.