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Do You Understand Your Nonprofit’s Place in the Market?

By Nell Edgington

Until recently, market research, or understanding the marketplace in which a nonprofit operates, had no place in the nonprofit sector. Once the sole purview of entrepreneurs and corporate brands, market research is quickly (and rightly) becoming a skill set that nonprofits must embrace. Because in an increasingly competitive landscape, if you don’t understand the needs of your clients, who else is addressing those needs, what your funders are looking for, who else they are funding, where policy makers and decision makers are moving, you are sunk. But for many nonprofit leaders market research seems nebulous, inaccessible and expensive. It doesn’t have to be.

Here’s how you can start to wrap your head around market research.

The first step is, with board and staff, to map the marketplace in which your nonprofit operates. A nonprofit is best positioned where their core competencies (those organizational assets they have that cannot be easily taken or replicated) intersect with a community need, apart from where their competitors or collaborators are strongest. Which looks like this:


The idea is that if a nonprofit organization can figure out what part of the solution to a social problem they offer and how that relates to the piece their competitors or collaborators have to offer, then the nonprofit can (for a start):

  • Better articulate to funders what their nonprofit is uniquely positioned to accomplish
  • Forge partnerships with organizations who supplement weaknesses the organization has
  • Stop wasting resources on “doing it all” and focus on the 1-2 things they do exceptionally well
  • Reduce competition for funding
  • Chart a sustainable future direction

But it is not enough to simply ask board and staff where they think your nonprofit fits in this map. Once they’ve taken a stab at it, you need to get out into the marketplace and see if that assessment holds true. This is where market research comes in. You need to understand current and future trends in your competitors/collaborators and the community need you are trying to address. So you need to find the answers to questions like:

  • Is the need within your client population expanding or contracting? In what areas? Why? What does the future hold?
  • How else are your clients getting these needs addressed or not addressed?
  • What is the future strategy of your competitors and collaborators?
  • What are the core competencies of your competitors and collaborators?
  • Are there new competitors/collaborators entering the space?
  • How do key decision makers (policy makers, funders, etc) feel about your competitors/collaborators? What do they think your role in addressing the problem is?

So how do you go about finding these answers? You can call current funders, friends or other connections and ask them to give you a lay of the land. But you also need to pull some data. And there are lots of free resources out there. Here is a beginning list of things to try:

  • Check out these free market research tools
  • Ask your local reference librarian for help
  • Use the many free databases available at public and university libraries
  • Use SurveyMonkey (or other free/cheap survey tools) to ask clients, funders, volunteers what they think
  • Ask a market research class at a local college or university to practice their new skills for free on your organization

There really is no excuse for nonprofits not to explore the market in which they operate. The information is out there, you just need to go out and get it. And if you don’t, you will be moving forward in the dark.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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5 Comments to Do You Understand Your Nonprofit’s Place in the Market?

Tina Crouse
January 20, 2012

Did it again Nell – outstanding! If non-profits would only listen to you (us), what wonders we could achieve ! (outside of the everyday miracles that also characterize the sector).


Nell Edgington
January 21, 2012

Thanks Tina!

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