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Nonprofit Leaders, Get Outside Your Walls

By Nell Edgington



It amazes me how many nonprofit leaders form their organizational strategy, their fundraising pitch, or their program model inside their nonprofit’s own walls. In order to be successful, you must understand the market in which you operate. And in order to understand it, you must go investigate it.

It is a simple fact that nonprofits must compete for funding, for clients, for volunteers, for staff, for board members, for mindshare, for policymaker will and commitment. So you must understand the market in which you work – what’s happening out there and how you fit in.

Ongoing market research can help you understand how your clients and potential clients think, what your funders want now and in the future, what your competitors and collaborators are doing and where they might be going, and how the very problems you exist to solve might be changing over time.

And there is another huge benefit to this data gathering — it forces you to expand and strengthen your network, because in the very act of finding out what’s happening outside your walls, you will forge new and deeper connections with others out there. So while market research should definitely be part of your long-term strategic planning process, it is also something you should continue to do on at least an annual basis.

Market research is where you test the assumptions baked into your work. You are seeking to find the answers to questions like:

Competitors/Collaborators

  • How are the efforts of other groups in our space changing over time?
  • How are these other groups funded?
  • What are their program delivery models?
  • What are their plans for the future?
  • Where are there opportunities for alliance?
  • How do they define the social problems they are working on?

External Context

  • What other social, technological, economic, demographic, political, regulatory shifts are happening outside our walls that might affect the problem(s) we are working on?

Target Populations

Of those people or groups you are trying to influence or benefit (like your clients) find out:

  • What are the demographic (age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, etc.) characteristics of these groups?
  • What are their psychographic (attitudes, interests, goals, etc.) characteristics?
  • How can we best reach them and change their attitudes and/or behavior?
  • What specific subsets of these populations can we have the greatest impact on?

Funding

  • How might our various funding streams (government, earned income, private donations, etc.) change over time?
  • What might our current or future funders want in the future?
  • What appeals to them about our solution?
  • What appeals to them about alternative solutions?

Before embarking on any market research, think through questions like these and figure out which are most applicable to your situation. This becomes your market research list.

Then determine how you will find the answers to those questions. Very few nonprofits can afford a comprehensive market study, so it will likely be up to your staff to do the digging. This can include activities like:

  • Web research on your competitors, collaborators, funders.
  • One-on-one interviews with current and potential funders, collaborators and competitors, experts in your field.
  • Surveys of your current or potential clients, members, influencers, funders, volunteers.
  • Review of existing research on the social issues on which you work.

And don’t assume that you will do this type of market research only once. Rather, you want to make it a regular part of operations (at least annually, if not more often), so it shouldn’t be overly burdensome. Make it easy and interesting for you and your staff to get beyond your walls and better understand the market in which you work.

Armed with new and ongoing knowledge about your market, you will be better able to design effective programs, attract additional support, articulate your nonprofit’s unique value, grow your network, and much more. So get out there!

Photo Credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Wartime Social Survey

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), 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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