How to Map Your Strategic Position

By Molly Penn

When doing strategic planning, it is important to gather data that can help you inform your thinking about future strategy. But gathering the data is not sufficient - you need to use it to map your strategic position so you understand where your organization sits in the “market,” relative to other mission-similar organizations and with regard to how it is perceived by stakeholders. This information helps you quickly map opportunities to fill gaps that others may not be filling and it helps you inform what shape your future growth should take.

So how do you map your strategic position? The word “map” here literally means to try to create some visuals to help you picture where you sit relative to other organizations with similar missions. It is a way to help you understand your unique role.

Understand Your Role

First, you will need to research what other mission-similar organizations are doing and who they are serving, you can use that information to build a clearer understanding of your unique role in the market. To do this, you will want to research the following questions:

WHAT KINDS OF PROGRAMS DO YOU AND OTHERS OFFER?

  • What does that tell you about what you do that is unique or different than others? How can you set yourself apart from others to clarify your unique role?

  • How do you compare in the eyes of funders or others who pay for your work (clients if you provide a service for a fee)? Are there changes you need to make based on this assessment?

  • Are there gaps that match areas of need expressed by those you serve that no one is addressing? Might those be opportunities for you to expand or serve a need that is related to your mission?

HOW MUCH OF THE COST OF PROGRAMS IS COVERED BY EARNED REVENUE?

  • This will tell you how much philanthropic subsidy is required to provide each of your programs. In general, the more philanthropic subsidy is required to provide your programs, the more important your outcomes will be to give your investors a sense of return on their investment.

  • If your programs require substantially more or less philanthropic subsidy than your mission-similar colleagues, it is important to examine why that is and what effect that is having on your mission.

HOW DO OTHERS SEE YOU?

  • It is important to inform your perception of your organization with feedback from others - both internal (board and staff) and external (funders, clients/audiences, colleague organizations).

  • By conducting interviews and aggregating conclusions, you can see themes that emerge or distinctions that are important to inform your thinking. For example, is your organization seen as a good investment? (if so, you might be well positioned to grow) Does your organization “play nicely in the sandbox?” (if not, you might want to address how you deal with your mission-similar colleagues} Most importantly, what do your clients/audiences want from you and are you providing that? (this is the most important information to inform your perception of your own organization)

Conduct a SOAR Analysis

It can be helpful to take all of the above information and put it into a table so you can clearly see the priorities for you to work on. Some call this a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), but we find a SOAR Analysis a more appreciative inquiry-based model.

(S) WHAT ARE YOUR STRENGTHS?

What do you do particularly well (and how do you know - don’t just pat yourself on the back here, but use the above information to inform your assessment)?

Building on areas of strength is one of the best growth strategies. Your strengths also offer you opportunities to expand the breadth of what you do.

(O) WHAT ARE YOUR OPPORTUNITIES?

What are real (verified) opportunities for you do something new or different? For example, are organizations talking to you about merging? do you have an active conversation with another organization about a strategic partnership?

Make sure the opportunities you list are real and not theoretical (for example, don’t say “we could merge” if you haven’t already identified another organization to merge with and begun a conversation with them - theoretical ideas are not helpful to this analysis)

(A) WHAT ARE YOUR ASPIRATIONS?

It is important to match what others want from you to what you want for your organization. Where do you want to grow? What do you see as strategic opportunities to grow, deepen your work, or expand your breadth of offerings?

This (not under Opportunities) is where you can house some of your theoretical aspirations like merging with an as yet unidentified partner, as long as it is grounded in a solid reasoning that responds to the information you gathered above.

(R) WHAT ARE YOUR RESULTS?

The importance of this category cannot be over emphasized. If your work is not leading to some demonstrated results, it will be difficult to obtain funding to grow.

Results (or outcomes) are your proof points - your rationale for growth of any kind. It is critical that organizations looking to grow are able to show some reason why they should grow - why they should take up more space in the market, take more of the philanthropic subsidy, or serve more of the potential clients/audiences for your work.

Be Systematic

By being systematic about codifying and mapping your strategic position, you can answer your deepest questions about the rate and shape of future growth for your organization, as well as how to adapt your programs to make them even stronger. If you need help mapping your strategic position, contact us!

Molly Penn is the President of PENN Creative Strategy, a consulting firm that partners with foundation and nonprofit leaders to build a thriving, just and relevant cultural & social sector.