Sea glass on a beach in Ontario, CALet’s face it, running a small nonprofit can feel like trying to win a marathon in flip-flops. You’re out there, determined to cross the finish line and make a difference, but you don’t have the fancy running shoes and support team that your competitors have.

This article offers insights to help you raise your fundraising and grant-writing game. Raising money is an ever-present challenge for most small nonprofits. Nonprofits obtain resources in four ways: donations, contracts/grants, charging for services, and investment income. While larger organizations have dedicated teams and resources for these tasks, small nonprofits rely on the grit of a few passionate folks to keep running.

Finding and selecting the right grants or donors to pursue takes time. As does researching potential partners, developing fundraising campaigns, reaching out to potential donors, and writing proposals. Donations and grants typically offer short-term funding, and funders gravitate toward established organizations they perceive as lower risk. The primary way to address these overarching challenges is by building name recognition and cultivating relationships with donors and philanthropic or government funders. Of course, this also takes time and resources away from executing your mission, so how do you make sure it pays off?

Differentiating Your Nonprofit

Building name recognition and cultivating relationships starts with really understanding what differentiates you in the market. Most people working in nonprofits develop only a cursory understanding of what makes their organization unique. To make matters worse, we are seldom as unique as we think. What you consider a differentiator may just be an indication of your lack of awareness of others in the market.

It helps to think of differentiation as constantly evolving—the daily decisions you and your competitors make alter your real and perceived differences. By viewing differentiation as something you are actively shaping, you move the focus from defining today’s differentiators to setting tomorrow’s differentiation goals. I refer to the latter as “aspirational differentiators.” You achieve these differentiation goals by actively working to create unique organizational attributes (which set you apart), recognizing those attributes, and effectively telling the story of that uniqueness.

Of course, recognizing the attributes that might make you unique requires keeping tabs on how others in the market are evolving. You are competing for finite resources. It may be a good strategic move to turn some of your competitors into partners but remember; you always operate in a competitive environment. Donors have other causes they care about, and grantors have other regions or projects they are interested in.

So, when we think about competitive differentiation, we need to consider your organization broadly. Why the problem you’re focused on matters, how your organization is unique, why the solution you’re proposing is the most compelling, and why now is the best time to support your organization.

Let’s dive deep into what might make your organization and its cause unique. When thinking through these, don’t limit yourself to the organization as it exists today. Think about aspirational differentiators and ways you can shape your organization to stand out from the pack in the future.

1) Why This Problem?

Part of what makes your organization unique is your mission—the problem you are focused on addressing. This is one of the reasons why clarity of purpose is so important. Without that clarity, it is difficult to claim this differentiator. There’s a reason your mission is what it is. You differentiate yourself by demonstrating why the problem you are focused on is important and how deeply your organization understands that problem.

  • What are the direct costs of the problem? The direct costs of a problem refer to the tangible expenses that arise from it. For instance, the direct costs of homelessness include emergency shelter costs, food supplies, healthcare services, law enforcement, social services, etc. If your nonprofit is focused on preventing homelessness, clearly defining these costs can help potential donors and grantors see how the benefits of your work extend beyond the individual people helped by your programs.
  • What are the indirect costs of the problem? Indirect costs are less obvious but equally important. They might include lost productivity, increased healthcare costs due to untreated illnesses, or the societal costs of crime and instability. Illustrating these broader impacts can paint a comprehensive picture of the problem’s true cost, compelling funders to see the larger implications and the necessity of intervention.
  • How is the problem evolving? Problems evolve, often becoming more complex and requiring more resources to address. For example, climate change related problems are escalating, with more frequent and severe natural disasters. Demonstrating how a problem is worsening or changing can highlight the urgency and adaptability required in your approach, making your case for funding stronger. It’s crucial to stay informed about these changes to ensure your approach remains effective.

2) Why Your Organization?

What makes your organization unique? Do you understand who your competitors are and how you are different? Have you worked in the same area or on the same problem for decades? How does your nonprofit show off its dedication to your mission? Highlight what sets your nonprofit apart—your unique focus, history, commitment, or specialized knowledge.

  • Why are you better than the competition? How do you distinguish yourself from similar organizations? Do you have a specialized focus? A grassroots connection with the community? If so, emphasize this local expertise and trust and how it can be more impactful. One common advantage of small nonprofits is their nimbleness and efficiency. Unlike larger organizations bogged down by bureaucracy, small nonprofits can pivot quickly and adapt to changing circumstances. This agility allows them to innovate and respond promptly to evolving donor interests and community needs.
  • What history of impact can you cite? Showcase your past successes with data and testimonials. Metrics such as the number of people served, positive changes in community indicators, or successful program outcomes provide evidence of your effectiveness. Personal stories and testimonials from those you’ve helped can add an emotional appeal to your factual data. Big organizations might have the name recognition, but small nonprofits have the heart, the hustle, and often deeper community connections. If you’re right there in the trenches, making a real difference, make that central to your story. You inspire greater trust and engagement from potential donors and funders by emphasizing your unique ability to make an immediate, tangible impact.
  • How is your dedication evident? Your organization’s history of commitment is a key factor in convincing funders of your reliability and perseverance. Highlight the longevity of your programs, the passion and expertise of your staff, and your ongoing involvement in the community or problem. The close-knit nature of small nonprofits fosters a strong sense of ownership and commitment among staff and volunteers. This tends to enhance productivity and resourcefulness‒make that part of your story. Dedication can also be shown through transparency in operations and consistent communication with stakeholders. By showcasing your unique dedication, you inspire trust and engagement from potential donors and funders.

3) Why Your Solution?

What makes your solution unique? Do you have the capacity to address the problem effectively? Have you built unique tools, relationships with stakeholders, or partnerships? How has your nonprofit invested in building this solution over time? Highlight what sets your solution apart—your proven approach, unique perspective, efficient execution, or broad stakeholder support. Help donors and grant reviewers understand why your solution is the one they should get behind.

  • How are you capable of solving the problem? Explain your capacity to address the problem effectively. This might include your history of growth, staff expertise, the innovative methods you employ, or the partnerships you’ve formed. Be specific about your capabilities, such as having a trained team ready to respond, established relationships with local agencies, or a proven service delivery model.
  • What makes your solution unique? Unique solutions attract attention and funding. Whether your approach integrates cutting-edge technology, uses a novel methodology, or collaborates in an unprecedented way, make it clear what gives your solution promise. A unique perspective or approach can be a strong selling point, especially if it addresses gaps that other organizations do not.
  • Why are you confident in your solution? Confidence in your solution comes from evidence and expertise. Use data, pilot program results, and expert endorsements to back your claims. Show that you have thoroughly researched and tested your methods, adapted based on feedback, and continuously improved your approach. A history of investment by other funders also helps to build confidence.

4) Why Now?

Making the case for why now is the best time to invest can also be a differentiator. It demonstrates your deep understanding of the problem, which builds confidence among potential funders. Combine that with the merits of your approach, and you will create a compelling call to action. Is the problem evolving in an alarming way? Would it be more efficient to invest now than in the future? Are the costs of inaction growing? Why is now the right time to focus on this problem, to support this organization, and to fund this solution?

  • Why is there urgency to the problem? Urgency is a powerful motivator for action. Whether the problem is escalating rapidly or an opportunity for impactful intervention exists, explain why immediate action is necessary. Use current events, recent trends, or time-sensitive opportunities to underline the need for prompt support. Sometimes, policy uncertainty also creates an urgency.
  • What kind of ROI can you offer now? Return on Investment (ROI) isn’t just for business. Nonprofits can demonstrate ROI by showing how donations directly lead to significant, measurable impacts. Explain how your nonprofit is ready to leverage new investment to achieve substantial benefits through matching programs, partnerships, improved outcomes, and long-term societal benefits. Often, it is helpful to put a new donor or grant funding request in the context of historical progress and future plans. This demonstrates that the new investment builds on a foundation of previous work and that you have a vision of ultimate success.
  • What costs come with waiting? The cost of inaction can also be a compelling argument. Detail the negative consequences of delaying intervention, such as the problem worsening, higher future costs, or lost opportunities. This also helps to create a sense of urgency and encourages funders to act now rather than later. How is this a differentiator? By demonstrating your grasp of the cost of inaction, you convey that your organization also feels a sense of urgency to address the problem. This is particularly useful when pursuing government or philanthropic grants because it helps those funders see you as a long-term partner who shares their concerns.

Fundraising Ideas & Grant Strategies

In the crowded world of fundraising, standing out from the crowd is essential. By clearly differentiating yourself, you capture donors’ attention and convince them your cause is unique and deserves their support. This can involve highlighting a specific approach, a compelling story of the impact you make, or even a niche community you serve. Remember, donors are bombarded with requests, so showcasing what makes you truly special is essential for securing those vital funds.

But building awareness of your organization and credibility in the market takes time. Time that is hard to come by for the leaders of most small nonprofits. What should you do while you’re working on differentiating your nonprofit? Here are some fun fundraising ideas:

Fundraising IdeaDetails
Act Local, Get SocialPartner with local businesses for win-win situations! Organize a charity trivia night at a pub, strike a deal for discounted merchandise with a shop owner to raffle off, or team up with a local pet store for an adoption event. Promote it all on social media to spread the word and get your community involved.
Crowdfunding for GoodPlatforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe empower everyday people to become philanthropists. Craft a compelling campaign that tells your story and highlights the impact of donations. Offer unique rewards for different contribution levels – a personalized thank-you video, a behind-the-scenes tour, or even the chance to name a rescued turtle!
Gamify Your CausePeople love a good challenge! Organize a virtual charity gaming marathon. Stream your team playing a popular game and encourage viewers to donate to watch or even participate themselves. Partner with a popular streamer who can help you reach a wider audience.
Themed Fundraising FeastDitch the bake sale and get creative! Host a progressive dinner party with a twist. Split the evening into courses, have each guest host a small gathering for a donation, and then rotate between houses to enjoy a delicious, community-building meal. Theme it around a specific culture or cuisine to add another layer of fun.
Flex Your Creative MuscleHost a "DIY for a cause" workshop. People love learning new skills, and you can provide instruction on anything from candle-making to jewelry creation or even technology classes. Charge a participation fee and donate the proceeds to your cause.

Perhaps your organization is less focused on finding donors and more focused on pursuing grants. The grant landscape is fiercely competitive. To rise above the noise, differentiate your proposal by showcasing what makes you and your project stand out. This could be a unique solution, a track record of exceeding goals, or the stakeholder connections necessary to effectively serve an underrepresented community. Grantors seek impactful projects, so highlighting what sets yours apart is crucial for securing those valuable funds. Here are some great grant strategies that go hand-in-hand with differentiation.

Grant StrategyDetails
Become a Grant WhispererResearch is your best friend! Don't waste time on grants that aren't a good fit. Look for funders whose mission aligns with yours and prioritize smaller grant opportunities with less competition. Grant databases and foundation websites are great places to start your search.
Read Between the LinesGrant guidelines are your roadmap to success. Read them carefully, paying close attention to the specific language used. Tailor your proposal to directly address the funder's priorities and evaluation criteria. Don't just tell them what you do – explain how your work fulfills their specific funding goals.
Numbers Are Your SuperpowerData speaks volumes! Showcase your organization's impact with compelling statistics and success stories. Quantify the difference you make. Did your after-school program increase graduation rates by 15%? Do you provide meals to twice as many families as you did last year? Show it off!
Collaboration is KeyTeamwork makes the dream work! Partner with other small nonprofits to share resources and expertise. Consider pooling efforts to write a joint grant proposal that addresses a broader community need, such as youth mentorship or environmental education.
Don't Be Shy! Connect with FundersMany foundations offer workshops or have staff available to answer questions. Don't be afraid to reach out and clarify any doubts about their requirements. A little proactive relationship development can go a long way in strengthening your application.


Small nonprofits face many challenges. By refining what makes your organization, mission, team, and solutions unique you can build a compelling case for support. Spend time considering these four critical questions—Why This Problem? Why Your Organization? Why Your Solution? Why Now?—and use them to clearly define how you are unique today and your differentiation goals for the future. Use those aspirational differentiators as a guide when making decisions about organizational priorities and investments. These creative strategies highlight the importance of your mission, the effectiveness of your organization, and the urgency of your work. With clear, evidence-based arguments and a passionate presentation, your nonprofit can attract the funding it needs to grow into the powerhouse you deserve to be.

Remember, pursuing nonprofit funding is a marathon, not a sprint. Be persistent, refine your approach with each application, and celebrate your victories (big and small). And, if you’re still running that marathon in flip-flops, make a point of investing in a good pair of running shoes as soon as you have the means. They’ll take you farther and your feet will thank you!

Additional Resources

  1. The Nonprofit Dilemma [My book.]
  2. Nonprofit Fundraising: Free Guidelines and Resources [By Management Library, which provides free high-quality online information to help businesses and professionals grow.]
  3. Candid’s Foundation Directory [A paid directory that can help you find the funders you don’t know yet.]
  4. Grant Evaluation Kit by Nolo [A useful grant strategy kit from Nolo Press.]
  5. Nonprofit Tech for Good [A great technology resource for nonprofit professionals.]

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author avatar
DC Armijo Founder
DC Armijo is an accomplished executive and award-winning author with over 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience.