How to Find Your Social Impact Niche

In the social impact sector, we all want to do more. Knowing your niche can help you increase your impact based on saying ‘yes’ to efforts that fit squarely within your expertise and a sharply defined focus.
How to Find Your Social Impact Niche

One strategic question we ask our clients early in an engagement is to describe their niche in their broader social impact ecosystem or category. In asking this question, we have found that nonprofits don’t often contemplate the idea of where they fit in their issue area. They have a clear idea of their mission. They often have a well-considered theory of change. But they haven’t always thought through what their unique positioning is compared to other organizations in their space.

Social enterprises tend to grasp this concept most easily. They think about where their products and services fit into the market. Still, they don’t always take into consideration where their social purpose fits into their cause ecosystem.

We believe that it’s critical for social impact leaders to clearly define the niche of their organization. Without it, you run the risk of mission creep, unfocused messaging, and a lack of differentiation. A strong understanding of your niche helps you stand out, attract supporters and funders, and provide your staff with a clear sense of purpose and direction.

When organizations say to us, “We’re having a difficult time telling our story.”, we often find that they don’t just have a messaging problem, but also a positioning problem. Developing a clear understanding of their niche brings clarity to their impact story.

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What is Your Niche in the Social Impact Sector?

We think about niche as where and how your organization operates in relation to other organizations in their cause ecosystem. Some high-level questions to ask that can help you define your niche include:

  • Are you a direct relief organization? Do you work directly with the people you are trying to help?

  • Are you an advocacy and or policy organization? Do you work to change policies or advocate for change in your cause area?

  • Are you a legal organization? Do you have attorneys on staff who use litigation to accomplish your goals?

  • Are you an infrastructure organization? Do you build, improve, or procure physical assets to accomplish your goals?

  • Are you a funder or philanthropist? Do you provide direct funding to the people you serve or financially support aligned organizations?

  • Are you a boots on the ground activist organization? Do you organize protests or work in an overt way to raise awareness, amplify your cause, and force change?

  • Are you a convenor organization? Do you bring people together to formulate and activate systemic solutions?

  • Are you a research organization? Do you do polling or academic studies to understand your cause ecosystem or category?

  • Are you an educational organization? Do you work to educate the public on your issue, work to improve education, or work with educators to help them be more effective?

  • Are you a technology organization? Do you provide technology solutions to address the challenges in your cause ecosystem or category?

Keep in mind that it’s more important to understand your niche than to have a precise name for it. You may even be a blend of a few of the examples above, or something entirely different. That’s ok. Let’s look at some examples to clarify this idea.

Example Niches for Social Enterprises

Wind Harvest is a technology and infrastructure organization operating in the climate change reduction and sustainability ecosystem. Their unique turbines (Wind Harvesters) are changing renewable energy by harvesting unused mid-level wind resources to dramatically increase the energy produced in wind farms and improve the reliability of the distributed energy grid. They are a good example of a company that has a niche in infrastructure and technology.

Our friends at MYNT are in the infrastructure organization niche. There are lots of companies that put solar panels on homes. The MYNT team saw an area where they could have greater impact, and where they had expertise and experience — mid-tier commercial buildings — and decided to concentrate on that. That’s their niche in the climate change cause ecosystem. Of course they install solar panels and energy storage systems, but they also work on HVAC, lighting, windows, insulation, and more, taking a holistic approach to transforming commercial buildings into alpha performing sustainable assets.

Warby-Parker operates in the direct relief niche in the health & human services ecosystem. Their customers buy a pair of glasses from them and they pay for another pair of glasses distributed by their nonprofit partner VisionSpring. Most “buy one, give” one social enterprises are in this niche. Other organizations work on affordable eye care, a niche closely related to the one Warby-Parker operates in.

It’s critical for purpose-driven social enterprises to use your differentiator in marketing communications. Leading with your impact story can help you connect with your audience and stand out above the noise in your market.

Example Niches for Nonprofits

Our clients, Nourish California, operate in the policy and advocacy niche in the food scarcity ecosystem. They shape programs and policies that help people gain fair access to nutritious, affordable food.

Your local food bank/pantry also addresses food scarcity. But their niche is direct services. You can see how their niche differs significantly from that of Nourish California, even though they operate in the same cause ecosystem.

Food insecurity is a good example of the relationships between organizations in a cause ecosystem. Because Nourish California has clearly determined their niche, they are positioned to do synergistic work with aligned organizations who are handling boots on the ground work while Nourish tackles the policy aspects. This strategy allows for opportunities to work with aligned organizations to conduct joint marketing and awareness campaigns and develop a supporter and advocacy community interested in their cause issue.

At the very least, knowing their niche helps Nourish drive the conversation from a focused perspective. It creates boundaries around the subject matter in their thought leadership communications strategy.

STEM From Dance is a direct services organization in the racial equity cause ecosystem. They are transforming the STEM field by empowering girls of color with the know-how, experience, and confidence to dream big in STEM — all through the power of dance.

Equality Fund is a good example of a financial services organization that provides funds to accelerate the power of women, girls, and trans people everywhere.

In our work with the Constructive Dialogue Institute we helped them define their niche which includes conducting behavioral science research to create psychology-based educational tools that help people discuss complex and divisive topics with ease, even when they disagree. They are one of the hybrid educational organizations we mentioned earlier.

Two Key Elements Determine Your Niche

Your niche is a combination of two elements — your positioning and your differentiators.

Positioning is a clear indication of your place within your cause ecosystem and infers your relationship to other organizations within that space. Your positioning delineates your brand's touch points and borders, and establishes your capabilities.

Differentiation is the distinct approach that makes your organization unique in your cause ecosystem. Your differentiation helps you break through the noise, earn people’s attention, and distinguish you from similar organizations in your space and from aligned organizations that occupy a different niche within that issue area.

Together, these two elements indicate where you overlap with aligned organizations and where you stand on your own in your cause ecosystem.

Why Defining Your Niche Matters

Some organizations have a difficult time telling their brand story because it’s all over the place. Out of a place of wanting to help as much as possible, they expand over time to have projects and programs that broaden their mission. This is a common problem in the social impact sector known as ‘mission creep’.

You need to set the boundaries that define your niche. Beyond understanding the parameters in which you operate, your niche includes your capabilities, strengths, opportunities, and capacity.

Your Strengths Inform Your Niche

In our work with the Lakota People’s Law Project, we see a good example of an organization leveraging their strengths and capabilities. The Co-director & Lead Counsel of LPLP is Chase Iron Eyes, Esq., an enrolled member of the Oglala Nation. LPLP is a program of the Romero Institute. Sara Nelson, their Executive Director, is a long time organizer. Their President, Daniel Sheehan, Esq. is an attorney who was a driving force behind landmark lawsuits such as the Watergate and Iran-Contra Scandals, the Pentagon Papers, and the killing of Karen Silkwood.

The LPLP team is well positioned to leverage the law to win Lakota justice. If they didn’t have lawyers at the top of their organization, they would likely take a different approach to their social justice work. Their expertise in complex legal cases is the primary factor in defining their niche.

Niche and Capacity are Intertwined

Mission creep can easily happen when an organization operates outside of their core strengths — especially if they don’t have the right people with expertise and experience on their team. If you bolt on more work, but don’t add more capacity, you reduce your ability to be effective in everything you do.

Understanding your niche can help you decide when to add a program and when to stay true to course — even when tempted by a new project adjacent to your niche. When FishWise realized that addressing ocean recovery required addressing exploitation of workers, they added experts in that field before expanding their programs beyond their core ocean ecosystems work.

How Geographical Reach Informs Niche

Geography can play a part in defining your niche. The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County covers the entire county, but realized that some projects, such as a land bridge created as a wildlife crossing, required that they work just outside of the borders of the county. As a result, they are shifting the messaging on their site to refer to the “Santa Cruz County area” to convey the geographic nature of their niche.

Your Theory of Change ≠ Your Niche

Cosmic’s Theory of Change is encapsulated in our value statement. “We empower social impact organizations to catalyze real world change by helping them nail their impact story, build brand awareness, and inspire action.” But this statement spells out how we help social impact organizations.

Our brand statement expresses our niche, “Cosmic is a social impact creative agency.” Our niche is the social impact sector. We define that to include nonprofits, social enterprises, and funders. Our discipline and expertise is around branding, messaging, and digital extension. This gives us very clear parameters around our work. It’s who we serve, and who we choose not to work with, as a creative agency.

Your Niche Empowers You to Focus

Everyone in the social impact sector wants to do as much good as possible. But there are realistic limits to what a single organization can do. You can have the most impact if you find the balance between creating the visionary change you want and what’s within reach for your organization to do today.

Every thriving ecosystem requires symbiotic relationships. If every animal, plant, or insect did the exact same thing, they would compete themselves out of existence. When we look at a cause ecosystem like food insecurity, we can see that people need access to food right now. We can also see that policies need to be changed to make this easier and to fix the root causes of food insecurity. We must have food pantries to address immediate needs.

But lasting change requires the efforts of advocacy and legal organizations. This whole ecosystem, working in harmony, is required to address food insecurity at all levels.

Your Niche Guides Your Team

A well-defined and expressed niche gives your team clear boundaries. It helps them know if an idea they have to improve your processes or services is appropriate for your organization. It helps new employees understand what you do, and equally important, what you don’t do.

Your niche also helps attract right-fit employees. There are many niches within the animal welfare cause ecosystem. But not everyone wants to get involved in animal rescue or research animal protection, as these areas may be traumatic for them. When you clearly communicate your niche, you are more likely to attract employees aligned with your mission and theory of change.

Your Niche Embodies Your Passions

We ask social impact leaders about their niche, in part, because we want to understand why they do what they do. We want to unearth the emotional core of their mission. We want to understand why their work matters — to them — so that we can help them convey that through their visual brand expression and their messaging. We want to find the emotional hook that makes their story human, relevant, and compelling.

When trying to determine your niche, think about why someone should care enough about your focus to support you. Consider how a clear description of your place in your cause ecosystem communicates what a funder is contributing to. It’s more than your cause. It’s the part you play in creating systemic change. It’s why you chose to focus on a particular area and why you’re most effective within your niche.

Say Yes with Confidence

You care deeply about your cause. You and your staff work hard to create the desired future state expressed in your theory of change. But you have limits — limits in funding, reach, staffing, and expertise. Defining your niche helps you focus your resources to be most effective in your cause ecosystem.

A clear niche can help you guide your organization and say ‘yes’ with confidence when a project or opportunity comes your way. It can help you avoid mission creep and know that other organizations in your cause ecosystem are addressing different aspects of your mutual cause. Knowing your niche tells your funders, donors, and supporters what you do, and what you don’t do, allowing them to make informed decisions about why they should support your work.

In the social impact sector, we all want to do more. Knowing your niche can help you increase your impact based on saying ‘yes’ to efforts that fit squarely within your expertise and a sharply defined focus.

Communicating your niche tells your audiences why you do what you do. It should express why everyone from the founder to supporters want to be involved and stay involved.

Putting a stake in the ground around your niche requires intention, courage, and strategic thinking. But when you find your niche and own it, you begin to truly thrive and find your true voice and reach your impact potential.

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