How to define your organization’s unique value

In my last post, I discussed how a theory of change can help your organization to focus its mission. This is the result of better defining your organization’s unique niche within the system in which it operates.

But how do we identify our organization’s unique value proposition? What parameters can guide us to determining our unique niche within the system? What will tell us how we can be most effective at creating the change we wish to see?

There are three components to a unique value proposition:

  • The benefit you offer to your constituents
  • How you are solving the problem
  • How you are different from others

The first describes the good stuff you do or provide, while the second identifies how that good stuff actually responds to the need and solves the problem you’re tackling. The third point is about how you distinguish yourselves from others working on the same issue, whether it be in approach, methods, or focus (thematically or geographically).

The theory of change is critical for laying the foundation of understanding about the problem, the other actors in your problem space, and the difference approaches to solving the problem and creating your vision.

Then when it comes time to define an organization’s unique value proposition, I ask questions around three areas:

Competencies. What is your organization good at? What skills and technical expertise does your staff bring to the table? What have you accomplished in the past as evidence of this? And conversely, what are you not good at? In what areas are you weak that you are less likely to be successful? Where have you not been successful or where have others been more successful than you in the past?

Need. Sure, you may be good at something, but is it needed? When you look at the system in which you work, do your strengths align with one or more areas that will contribute to transforming the system? How does your work make a significant contribution to solving the problem in the long run? How is what you’re doing today going to make it easier for people tomorrow? And conversely, in what ways does your work not solve the problem? What other approaches are needed that you will not do or that you are not prepared to do?

Position. So you’re good at something, and that something can help solve the problem, but is this something that others are already doing? Is what you’re offering different from what is already being done? If so, can you define and demonstrate those differences? Conversely, are there areas of need where others are not intervening that fit your competencies? Is there something that needs to get done that no one else is doing and you could do successfully? Could you adapt your organization to do what’s needed?

By looking at what an organization can do well, how what it does affects change, and its positioning relative to others, it becomes much easier to understand the unique value proposition. This in turn makes it easier to attract support for your work, because it is important, effective, and unlike anything else out there. And who wouldn’t want to support a worthy cause like that?

Do you know your organization’s UVP? Do you have a clear theory of change that helps you understand your organization’s purpose and positioning? How would understanding your organization’s UVP help you with your messaging and fundraising?

If you’re interested in developing a theory of change that does all of the above, check out The ToC Workshop, a special eight-week program designed to help you get the most out of a theory of change for your organization.


Are you really solving the problem?

During my time in philanthropy, I reviewed many grant proposals, many of which were pretty good. They did a good job describing the project, and usually did a good job describing the problem they hoped to solve. However, nearly every proposal had the same flaw, something missing, something that inevitably led to tough questions from the Program Officer who was in charge of developing the grant. What was the missing piece? A failure to connect the project to the problem. In other words, how will this project actually solve the problem?

Let’s take an example. Say the problem you’re trying to solve is hunger among the homeless in the Bay Area, and let’s say you’re requesting a grant to provide free meals for 100,000 homeless people over the course of a year. We can understand the problem and its importance, and we can understand the project and its importance, but at the end of the grant, will you really be any closer to solving the problem? Will there really be less hungry people in a year? Is it possible there could even be more hungry people?

I’m not suggesting that feeding the hungry is a bad idea. It’s a good idea. In fact, it’s necessary in order to help these people survive another day. However, it’s also just a short-term solution to the symptoms of a much bigger, long-term, systemic problem. If your mission is to solve hunger, feeding the homeless is a necessary but ultimately insufficient step to take.

This is why organizations benefit from developing a Theory of Change. Yeah, we know. “Theory of Change.” It’s one of those fluffy, jargony buzz words tossed around by foundations and consulting wonks. But when developed effectively, it helps an organization to clarify what it does, and more importantly, why doing what it does helps to solve the problem.

The truth is, a solid, articulate theory of change helps organizations to be more strategic by identifying the key opportunities for influencing the system. Oftentimes a theory of change is equated to a strategy (“we do this therefore we get this”), but a good theory of change is a system-wide view that provides the context and rationale for a strategic plan. Done well, a theory of change makes a strong case for why your strategy is a smart, practical, and effective approach to achieving your mission and solving the problem.

Does your organization have a clear theory of change? Do you feel confident in explaining why your approach and programs are effective mechanisms for solving the problem? Have you had to face the tough questions from funders to explain the rationale of your programs? Post your comments below.