A common practice in the private sector, landscape analysis holds powerful potential for non-profits, foundations, and mission-driven organizations. At its simplest, a landscape analysis is formal research into an organization’s industry and competition.
Specifically, landscape analysis can help your organization make smarter, more efficient decisions by:
- Discovering best practices and advances
- Identifying initiative design flaws early on
- Giving your organization a competitive advantage
- Providing initial feedback on new initiatives
Still, landscape analysis is frequently overlooked. Leaders with years of industry experience tend to have difficulty seeing the need for additional research. Specifically within social impact, non-profit leaders tend to be overwhelmed by the task.
This article will demonstrate how to overcome these challenges by walking through a recent landscape analysis we conducted for YouthBuild USA, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides work-readiness programs for thousands of at-risk youth each year.
YouthBuild approached Cicero Social Impact seeking to increase the number of its participants who achieve successful, full-time employment upon completion of the program. Specifically, the organization’s leaders had discovered research suggesting the success of a new training technique that other nonprofits had begun to implement. Our team was tasked with exploring how this new instructional technique could be incorporated throughout the organization.
Instead of jumping head-first into initiative design and implementation planning, our team started by conducting a landscape analysis. Our objective was to explore what strategies similar organizations were using, what approaches were and weren’t working, and whether employer-partners—critical to the success of this technique—would be interested in supporting a program expansion.
Assess your current organization
Before looking to other organizations and models, it’s important to have a solid view of your own operations so that you can make accurate comparisons and ask the right questions. As such, our first step was to interview YouthBuild program directors to understand how their curricula were currently designed, what components seemed to be most and least successful, and whether they believed that their location would have capacity for the expanded program proposal. We conducted interviews with 6 programs directors and leaders and through them identified key questions and sentiments that shaped the direction of our subsequent research.
Explore existing research
Next, we dug into existing research. Landscape analysis can consist of primary or secondary research, or of a combination of both. Secondary research allows you to explore what experts have said or observed about the topic and to compare their feedback to your original hypothesis. It typically primarily consists of internet research. Start with combinations of key search terms and scour the footnotes and citations of relevant articles to find links to other sources.
A note of caution: be wary of bias! Think-tanks or advocacy groups often have a vested interest in portraying results in a certain light. In this project, we found that studies published by advocacy groups were overwhelmingly positive and focused exclusively on short-term outcomes, while academic research showed that long-term outcomes of those strategies were negligible.
Understand the competition
With a firm understanding of current needs and expert findings, dive into the market. Starting with internal contacts at related organizations, interview relevant stakeholders who can speak to your research questions from an alternative point of view. For this project, we needed to talk to decision-makers who understood their organization’s program design and strategic partnerships. While this may be tricky to accomplish in the private sector, nonprofit leaders are often happy to support others’ efforts to better serve target populations.
During these conversations, interviewees shared valuable feedback on YouthBuild’s hypotheses and project concept. Generally supportive of the new approach, they drew our attention to new opportunities and shared specific challenges that they faced during similar interventions.
Assess other relevant players
After exploring the perspectives of primary competitors, identify and conduct similar research into other players who will be involved or have influence on the initiative being explored. Since employer participation was critical to the success of YouthBuild’s new program approach, we interviewed a variety of current and prospective employer partners. Among the topics we explored were:
- Employer interest in supporting and engaging with YouthBuild both generally and within the context of this new program;
- Employer motivations for partnering with YouthBuild;
- Employer satisfaction with and reactions to existing programming and partnership activities;
- Opportunities for YouthBuild to better serve employer partners.
Employers shared candid feedback that helped us reshape several design elements and better define the project’s value proposition.
Evaluate the research results
Throughout each phase of research, maintain notes of findings, trends, and additional hypotheses. While the principal analysis will occur after all research has been collected, review regularly throughout each stage and ask yourself, “What have we learned so far and what do we still need to learn?”
After interviewing internal stakeholders, additional players, and competitors and conducting secondary research, thoroughly and critically evaluate all findings. Among others, consider the following questions:
- How do our findings support or challenge our initial hypothesis?
- How does our approach compare to those of other organizations and to best practices?
- What is the unique value proposition of our approach? How does this distinguish us from the market?
- What weaknesses have been identified in our approach?
- How will we adjust our hypothesis and/or strategic direction given these findings?
Landscape analysis takes time, but can be the key to better decision-making and implementation, especially in the social sector. Our research for YouthBuild USA, for example, strongly challenged several of our team’s initial assumptions and helped us refine the program design strategy. We encourage you to add landscape analysis to your organization’s decision-making toolkit, and to consider whether any of your current initiatives could be strengthened through market research.
To learn more, explore the following resources:
- Competitive Positioning: Why Knowing Your Competition Is Essential to Social Impact Success (Nonprofit Quarterly)
- Do You Understand Your Nonprofit’s Place in the Market? (Social Velocity)
- Market Analysis (Stanford GSB)
- Defining your Competitive Advantage