Developing an Organizational “Signature” for Non-profits

I was once reminded in a meeting about our customers recently, about how becoming “indispensable” is the best way to keep them. It’s an obvious concept, keeping their attention is expected to maintain your share of their business. When I was starting my career, the administrator for the non-profit service organization for which I was employed, introduced me to the importance of the organization to sustain people’s attention by “creating a signature.” At the time, I was a direct service producer, not a manager, so the concept didn’t quite take hold immediately.

Fast forward about 15 years, and I’m older (now using reading glasses) and have been in management and operations of other non-profit service organizations (behavioral health delivery systems) for many years. The concept of “signature” appears even more relevant, and even elegant. About a week ago, in a meeting to discuss our various customer groups, a discussion ensued about how some units were overwhelmed with referrals (high demand), and others were not. The idea of “making yourself” indispensable was brought up. We discussed the importance of organizations (particularly non-profits) to make themselves indispensable, as a long term strategy for maintaining their mission and the people they serve. Many non-profits just focus on delivering service, without looking at it through a deeper lens.

What is “signature” more specifically? It is the ability of the people in the organization to execute the service so well that the thought of your organization, keeps people coming back to the service. Their thoughts immediately turn to you, the organization, and the delivery you provide over and over again. It becomes what you’re known for. In a way, it is an organization’s “reputation”, but it is more about how people experience the delivery of what you do. The following steps can be used to evaluate whether your non-profit organization has a signature:

The organization usually has a core competency that it is known for. It does it well, and has for a long time. It employs specialized knowledge, or direct service people who have hard to replicate skills to deliver the service.

It does something that is highly valued by a customer service group. Perhaps, even something that other organizations shy away from because of its complexity or difficulty.

It makes the customer’s job or experience “easier.”

It customizes its delivery of the service so that it is tailored to the specific needs of a customer group. This can take the form of special contracting or agreements.

It keeps its social marketing (people marketing) active and responsive.

It develops services that not only meet a need, but solve a pressing problem. Again, making the life easier for the customer.
When I started my career nearly two decades ago, I knew doing a good job would create customer value, but I didn’t clearly understand what my boss meant by “developing a signature.” It is a total package for delivery and sustaining your non-profit organization. The signature may need reviewed periodically to ensure it is meeting future trends and revenue streams that feed the organization. It is exciting to have this package as another tool to sustaining your non-profit for the long term.


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