Imitation is the “sincerest form of flattery,” or so says English writer Charles Caleb Colton.
Or maybe imitation is “not just the sincerest form of flattery — it’s the sincerest form of learning,” if you would rather take the word of George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright.
I regularly hear from nonprofit organizations that want nothing less than “to be like charity: water.” Now I don’t question that that is a worthy goal. After all, the very fact that we want to imitate something means we are familiar with it. And there’s no denying that charity: water is well-known. It’s been included in a speech by President Barack Obama, been supported by celebrities and won awards for everything from its logo to its entrepreneurial thinking. And it’s certainly doing noble work at — according to its most recent 990 posted on GuideStar, it has a respectable overhead rate of 11.4 percent.
So again, wanting to imitate charity: water (or any other successful nonprofit, for that matter) is not a bad thing — as long as we are committed to understanding and imitating the essentials that make the organization successful, not just somehow wanting to “be” successful without doing the hard work that created that success to begin with.
All this leads me to a post by Chloe Gray on the Kissmetrics blog. She identifies nine “valuable marketing lessons” from charity: water. Somehow I missed this when it was posted a few months back, and if you did, too, I recommend reading the entire posting. But for those still looking for the fast track to success, here are a few of her points that really jumped out at me:
Identify your unique value proposition (UVP) and broadcast it to your audience
Marketers generally agree that a UVP has three features, phrased here using nonprofit terms:
- It shows me what is unique about the nonprofit from all the others doing what seems to me to be the same work.
- It tells me an important benefit I will receive if I donate.
- It is so powerful it makes me actually become a donor.
In discussing charity: water’s UVP, Gray writes, “But charity: water didn’t decide on this value proposition haphazardly. They hit on three major pain points for nonprofit donors.”
What is it about your organization that sets it apart from all the others? How can you show donors and potential donors that you are unique — even irreplaceable because you are doing something that no one else is doing? If you can’t show why you are different from everyone else, you’re going to have a hard time proving that someone should donate to you instead of another organization that does what seems to be the same thing.
Create content that people will fall in love with
When was the last time someone “fell in love” with your direct-mail letter, email blast, Facebook post or newsletter copy? As Gray says, “Figure out what inspires your customers and what gets them excited, and then create a content marketing strategy around that.”
It’s always tempting to rely on the same schedule year after year — you know, “If it’s February, it must be our annual appeal for canned goods.” Instead, find out what your donors are passionate about. Sure, from time to time you may have to cover a topic that is not as beloved (politics and all that), but strive to strip away the copy that weighs it down and package it to be as loveable as possible.
Think of each communication as food; can you arrange it on the plate to make it more appetizing? It may still be cauliflower, but it’s presented in a way that makes it almost as appetizing as crème brulée.
Be a brand purist
Once again, quoting Gray, “I am always excited when I see the charity: water name in my inbox because I know the email will be a joy to look at and fun to read.”
Does that describe your fundraising messages?
Are you working with your copywriters and designers to make sure everything that has your organization’s name on it reflects the qualities you want your brand to reflect? Or are you settling for “good enough” just to get the job done? A few ways to make sure you aren’t forced to settle is to be clear about what you want to accomplish, allow time for creativity to percolate and allow enough time to make changes if need be.
This old dog is going to go with Shaw and say that imitation is the “sincerest form of learning.” If you truly want to learn how to be like charity: water — or any other company, for-profit or nonprofit, for that matter — find out what it is about the organization that you envy. Then apply the essentials of its success to develop your own uniqueness.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll end up being the next nonprofit everyone wants to imitate!
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.