Nonprofits exist in a strange netherworld between market forces and social change. They are trying to create a solution to a social problem, but as much as some might like to deny it, that desired social change exists within a market economy. That means that in order to be successful, nonprofits, just like any business, must continually analyze, understand and create strategies around whatever market forces are at play (competition for funding, clients, partnerships, inputs, results; increased/decreased regulation; changing client/funder demand; changing input costs; changing technology, etc.).
The tendency among some of those working toward social impact is to assume that simply because they are doing good in the world, those market forces can somehow be ignored or dismissed. Good will win out over the market. But it is not a binary system. Organizations that are working toward good are very much subject to market forces and must be strategic about how to address them.
Which brings me to a SWOT analysis, an often misunderstood tool that can help nonprofits do just that. Most people understand that a SWOT analysis helps an organization break down the internal forces at work (their own strengths and weaknesses) and the external opportunities and threats that face them in the marketplace. But once these are uncovered, the more important step is to translate those realities into strategies that increase the nonprofit’s position in the market, whether that is increased profit, increased social impact, or both.
Strengths are the resources, capabilities, core competencies, and experience that could be used to develop a competitive advantage, or a better position in the marketplace than their competitors, such as:
- Brand name
- Funder/investor retention
- Access to clients/customers
- Access to inputs required to create the desired social impact
- Cash reserves
- Demonstrated social impact
- Use/understanding of critical technology
Weaknesses are things that the nonprofit should possess in order to create a competitive advantage, but happen to lack. They can also be the flip side of a strength, such as a nonprofit that has a large staff (strength) but whose large staff makes it difficult to be flexible towards changing program requirements (weakness). Some examples:
- Lack of staff talent/expertise
- Limited network/relationships/alliances
- Low funder/investor retention rates
- Limited access to inputs required to create social impact
- Lack of demonstrated results
The External Analysis exposes the situation in the marketplace and how that situation positively (opportunities) or negatively (threats) could affect the organization. Opportunities are external realities that could result in greater social impact, profit and growth for the organization:
- Growing social need/customer demand
- New technologies that could decrease costs to deliver programs/products/services
- Relaxation of government regulations for addressing the social challenge
- Declining competitors for funding or program delivery
Threats are situations that have the potential to diminish the organization’s social impact/profitability/growth. For example:
- Increasing competitors
- Stricter regulations
- Increasing cost of inputs
- Diminishing client/customer demand
- Changing technology
But this analysis gets you nowhere if you don’t take the most important next step, which is to craft strategies from the results. The various strategies for the organization going forward fall into four categories:
- Strength-Opportunity Strategies that use the organization’s strengths to go after external opportunities. For example when a nonprofit uses their strong brand name (strength) to expand into a newly emerging client need (opportunity). Teach for America has recently decided to take a version of their teacher recruitment program to schools outside of America.
- Weakness-Opportunity Strategies that overcome a nonprofit’s weaknesses in order to go after external opportunities. For example when Kiva recently decided to give their loaners whose demand outstripped loanee supply (weakness) an opportunity to make loans to American entrepreneurs whose demand for loans due to the bank crisis and the recession were growing (opportunity).
- Strength-Threat Strategies that harness a nonprofit’s strengths in order to overcome its vulnerability to external threats. For example a nonprofit that harnesses its well-connected board (strength) to strengthen their relationships with foundations and individual donors who are being bombarded by an increasing number of nonprofits (threat).
- Weakness-Threat Strategies that create a defensive plan for preventing the nonprofit’s weaknesses from making it susceptible to external threats. For example when a nonprofit decides to go through the patent process to guard its unprotected results-achieving curriculum (weakness) from growing competitors (threat).
Creating and then employing these strategies allows a social impact organization to be proactive and opportunistic about market dynamics–market dynamics which very much play into whether the solution they seek will come to fruition.