Value Proposition

At a conference on corporate philanthropy in 2003, a published summary reports, “a main theme that emerged is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to assessing the value proposition of corporate philanthropy, but that each company needs to develop internally accepted measures.” This sentence appears to leave unchallenged the claim of woolen winter caps to being the only thing in America for which one size actually fits all. But that is not what’s interesting about this unremarkable claim.

Until recently (the early 1990s, as far as we can tell), the idea of a VALUE PROPOSITION was unknown to the philanthropic and nonprofit worlds, but it has been spreading like a brush fire ever since. The phrase describes an approach to developing and marketing products based on a clear idea of what customers consider valuable.

The PROPOSITION amounts to a succinct argument for why customers should be willing to part with their money in exchange for your product, rather than someone else’s. An exact synonym for this kind of VALUE PROPOSITION is “sales pitch.”

A foundation that supports civic leadership has posted an online training document on its Web site with the imposing title, “Social Entrepreneurship: Understanding the New Strategic Space for Social Value Creation.” We have already addressed this use of SPACE elsewhere, but the publication’s discussion of “social value creation” leads us, by and by, to the discovery of a new, as-yet-unexplored jargon space: “Developing Your Social Value Proposition.” The document helpfully lists the components of an effective “social value proposition,” all of which bear an uncanny resemblance to … a sales pitch.

An organization that represents community foundations urges its members to “strengthen our value proposition,” by which it means that they should “distinguish and promote our competitive advantage.” In other words, figure out why you and your services constitute a better deal for your customers (in this case potential donors) than do those of your competitors. Merchants do pretty much the same thing whenever they make a sales pitch.

It is perfectly understandable that foundations and civic institutions, acting in the public interest and trying to serve elevated ideals, would want to avoid any appearance of peddling their wares, much less engaging in the hawker’s art of pitching a sale. And yet, however much they may abhor the appearance, some of them seem fairly at ease with the reality — so long as it’s elegantly dressed up as a VALUE PROPOSITION, and moves about in an elevated “strategic space” far above the muddy footpaths of the public bazaar.

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