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Help Your Clients Design a Life

If a nonprofit wants to have a competitive advantage, it must provide a product or service that is unique and significantly better than similar offerings.  The clients, donors, and community decide on the definition of unique and significantly better.  The robustness of the advantage depends on how hard it is for competitors to duplicate and what percentage of the clients, donors, and community think it is unique and significantly better.

Most mission statements promise a solution to a social problem that will probably take years to solve.  However, most nonprofits focus on providing services designed to address the near-term needs of clients.  In addition, the services usually only address a symptom of a larger problem.  Many nonprofits further limit their mission statements to one of the symptoms.  Promising to address the problem is a competitive advantage by itself.  Fulfilling the promise is a significant competitive advantage.

Imagine two nonprofits.  One’s mission statement promises the clients will achieve financial independence by helping the unemployed find work.  The other’s mission statement promises to help the unemployed find work.  Even though the mission statements are different, the nonprofits are competitively identical.

The first nonprofit promises to change a client’s life.  Successfully changing a person’s life is a significant competitive advantage.

The client has an immediate need: A job.  However, they want what each of us wants: Stable employment and financial security.  Fulfilling the promise of the mission statement implies meeting the need and the want.  Meeting the need is critical to starting the process.  Satisfying the want is critical to fulfilling the mission, creating a competitive advantage, and providing meaningful, measurable, and durable value for the community and the client.

The first step is to anticipate the programing needs of a typical client.  Since each client is different and the world is constantly evolving, the programing will constantly evolve.  Part of the program development is to have intentional programing for each step the client must make.  Each step must also be measurable.

The second step in the process is helping the client articulate their wants.  Their wants then become the service delivery goals and your nonprofit’s most valuable outcome.  If the client’s wants are the client’s goals, it will be easy to retain the client after they find employment.  They will be willing to come back and learn about upward mobility, career goals, and money management as well as long-term planning.

The third step is client cultivation.  Without having an engaged client, the client will drop out of the program after his or her needs are met.  Cultivating the client includes being able to quantifiably discuss the client’s progress toward satisfying his or her wants and being able to outline the steps necessary to reach the next milestone.

Solving social problems is a long and involved process.  It is unnecessary for your nonprofit to provide every service the client might need.  It is sufficient to focus your services around the strengths of your staff and use other organizations to meet the remaining needs.  Your competitive advantage will be a solution customized for each client.

Since your solution will be customized, rather than one-size-fits-all, you will have a competitive advantage that will be difficult to match.  The priority of most nonprofits is the most efficient and least expensive way to meet the clients’ needs rather than the most effective way to satisfy each client’s wants.

The most durable competitive advantages are the ones that are most effective at meeting clients’ needs and wants.  This has been proven to be true by nonprofits and for-profits of all types.  It is one of the characteristics of organizations with high levels of sustainability.

Next Step:

Commit to providing highly effective solutions that meet both your clients’ needs and wants

Create programing whose goals are the clients’ needs and wants and expressed in ways that resonate with clients and donors

Monitor the engagement of each client

Think carefully about how to align your funding strategy with your service delivery model

In many cases, clients will arrive with needs and insufficient skills and funds to meet their needs.  Therefore, it will be necessary for donors to provide the funding.  As a client’s skills improve and their immediate needs are met, they will become more self-sufficient.  As that occurs, the client will be able to help fund their services.  By the time they complete your programing, they will have the capacity to help fund the needs of new clients.  Whether they become a donor will be a test of how effective your client engagement was.  Each new grateful donor will add significantly to the sustainability of your nonprofit and help your nonprofit grow to serve the growing needs for your services.

Take It Further:

Ask your board to make the long-term promise of your mission statement the first priority of your nonprofit

Select collaborators whose mission is complementary to yours and who are willing to take the long-view when looking at services and client needs

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