Here’s irony for you: I learned my biggest lessons in positioning from someone who was anonymous.
It started with a mystery. Funnily enough, the mystery was not who this anonymous person was — that was an open secret. I mean, everyone knew who this person was.
See, I spent the first 15 years or so of my marketing and messaging career working in and with nonprofits here in Boston, where I live. Much of that time was spent figuring out those nonprofits’ positioning: what messaging could we use to attract more attention? More audiences? More money?
And all of that time I had a next-to-nothing budget to work with, so I was constantly on the hunt for how I could make those precious dollars stretch further. What positioning would maximize messaging?
True story: for three years I was in charge of the fundraising communication strategy at Harvard Medical School. Convincing people to give one of the world’s richest institutions even more money was a none-too-simple challenge. And I didn’t have any budget there, either.
But it was there that I found a clue to an answer: nonprofits share donors. A lot of donors. It’s pretty rare, at least at the upper dollar levels of giving, for a donor to give to only one organization. They give to multiple organizations. Sometimes you know because they put their names on everything. Sometimes, you have to work at an organization to know who’s behind the gifts labeled “anonymous.”
But there was one anonymous donor who, no matter the nonprofit here in Boston, was always referred to as the Anonymous Donor — capital A and D, emphasis on the “the.” I can think of at least three major Boston-area nonprofits where Anonymous Donor gifts served as the basis of massive new projects or were the core of the funds that sustained an initiative — and those nonprofits ranged from cultural to clinical. But when someone said the Anonymous Donor, it was always the same person.
So, as I said, that wasn’t the mystery. The mystery, to me at least, was why he gave money to those nonprofits. And more specifically, what did he give to, at those nonprofits? Because patterns drive positioning. The fact that he always gave at certain levels, to certain levels of institutions, with the same conditions of anonymity meant he was always positioned the same way externally. And treated the same way internally.
But it wasn’t just about him. Because I needed to stretch my messaging dollars as far as they could go, I wanted to know: why would one donor (any donor!) give to so many different organizations? And what tied those different organizations together in the donor’s mind? Was there a pattern I could see? Was there something I could use to set our positioning to capture not just the Anonymous Donor’s attention, but other major donors in the area who didn’t yet give, in this case, to the Medical School?
Because I knew what didn’t work: trying to convince someone to give to us simply because of who and what we were.(Hey! Look over here! We’re a medical school! You don’t have one of those on your giving list yet!) Doing that always meant trying to get donors to look in a new direction when making their gifts. And when money is involved, people don’t like “new.”
This is true well beyond the nonprofit world, by the way.
I’ll spare you the whole story of my research, but what I discovered was this: while there wasn’t a usable pattern for why people gave money at all (those reasons could range from self-serving to altruistic), there was a usable pattern to something else.
There was a pattern to what kinds of things donors (and the Anonymous Donor, in particular) gave money to – even across very different nonprofits. There was a pattern to what they wanted to accomplish through their gifts.
So, for instance, if someone tended to give money at one institution to solve a specific problem (say, to a hospital help cure cancer), they tended to always give to solve a problem (to a museum to improve access for underserved youth). If they gave at one institution to expand the scope of impact, they tended to always give to expand the scope of impact, etc.
Which meant, to maximize my messaging dollar, I could position for their patterns.
Once I figured that out, it because simply a matter of messaging what we did at the Medical School in terms that matched what the donors were already looking for.
I could, for instance, take the same need (say, to fund a new type of high-powered microscope) and create multiple types of messaging around it. It could help solve a specific problem (age-related hearing loss), it could help expand scope (because it could help us understand the mechanisms that caused hearing loss), it could improve training of medical students (because they could better see the mechanisms in questions).
The lesson for all of us is this: when it comes to maximizing messaging — now matter how much money you have… or want — position for the patterns of the people you serve. Figure out what they want, why they want it, and how they go about getting it.
And make your positioning match that.