Author’s Note: For those in the Tri-Cities, TN area who are interested in strategic planning for nonprofits or businesses, The Summit Companies will be holding a seminar at the Summit Leadership Foundation in Johnson City on October 27. There will no registration fee, but donations will be accepted to support economic development in Haiti. To learn more, please visit, or contact us by e-mail at or at 423-274-0700.


One of the key processes that is identified in most strategic planning guides is determining what specific services the organization should be offering to the public. While different phrases will be employed to creatively introduce the process, such as “Where to play?” or “What business are you in?” they all point to the same goal of selecting the services or products that will best allow the organization to accomplish its purpose and goals. Although most planning guides will focus that process on for-profit businesses, it is no less a crucial question for nonprofit organizations. In fact, many of the same steps that are employed by businesses in that process can be easily adapted to the nonprofit environment. Despite that, too little attention is often paid to the process by nonprofits, leading both to missed opportunities and to wasted resources. Even if an organization has a well-written mission that remains relevant over long periods of time, as the operating environment changes, so to do the ways that the organization can accomplish its mission. While there are few shortcuts to help organizations effectively identify the right services to be offered to the community that they are serving, there are a few key questions that can help any organization get pointed in the right direction.


What services best fit the strengths and resources of the organization?

One of the most critical parts of planning for any organization is environmental scanning. If a business is going to be profitable and successful, it must have a strong grasp on its operating environment, including the needs and demands of the market and the capabilities of its competitors. For a nonprofit organization, that obligation goes even further. Not only does the organization have an internal desire to be successful in its operations, but it also has a public duty to effectively serve the community. That duty is both legal (the 501c3 process requires the identification of and commitment to a charitable purpose) and moral (there is an implicit trust being placed in the organization by supporters.) While all responsible nonprofits would readily acknowledge their duty, not all take the necessary steps to truly honor it. A crucial, and often overlooked, part of that process is the identification and understanding of the larger community of organizations that are also serving the same or similar needs in the community. Although any good nonprofit organization will be filled with people that are passionate about the work of the organization and want to grow it, growing a specific organization does not always lead to more needs being met. That is true largely because there are limited resources available in any community and sometimes nonprofits are competing for the same resources. That reality does not mean that nonprofits never should duplicate or overlap services, but it does change the way that organizations should evaluate those potential services. While many organizations simply ask the question “What can we do?” a better question to ask would be “What can we do better than other organizations with a similar purpose?” That requires a mindset that is less like a for-profit business which is competing with others around it, and more like a division of a company that recognizes it has an obligation for stewardship that is larger than itself.


What needs in the community are not being adequately met?

The second step will again rely on effective environmental scanning while also closely mirroring the steps that most for-profit businesses would take in selecting products or services to offer. The primary difference in how a nonprofit will complete the step from how a business will is that there will be a transition from identifying marketplace demand to identifying marketplace need. This does not mean simply looking for areas where no other organizations are serving, but also looking for areas where the need exceeds the capacity of existing organizations or where the current services offered are not having the desire impact. This can be a very difficult question to answer because the need can change very quickly as the demographics of the community change, as new organizations start to serve a populations, as regulations change the landscape, and as governmental agencies become involved. Answering the question also requires a proper understanding of the ultimate purpose and values of the organization. For example, if a Christian ministry has a stated mission of “showing the love of Christ by serving the homeless in our community,” then that organization may be willing to duplicate services such as shelters or soup kitchens if they feel that other ways that those needs are being met do not address the spiritual needs of the individuals which the ministry hold to be paramount. An additional benefit of this step is that as organizations spend time studying the larger charitable community of organizations, new opportunities are discovered for collaboration and support that were previously overlooked.


What services would fit the passions and purpose of our organization?

There is a two-fold purpose to the third step. If the organization has done an effective job of communicating its key purpose and tying that purpose to hiring employees and recruiting board members, then its purpose and passion should be closely aligned enough to be able to evaluate together. The functions they serve are complementary but still distinct. A clear purpose should help the organization avoid mission drift and losing sight of established priorities. At the same time, aligning with organizational passions will help keep stakeholders engaged and motivated, a crucial component for organizations that often rely heavily on volunteer staff and contributors. If the organization can paint a clear picture of how it intends to meet the needs of the community, then that vision can in turn help the organization in turn overcome many of the struggles that it is likely to encounter.


It is important to understand that identifying the right questions is only the beginning. Answering those questions correctly will take time and will require the right approach. There is no single approach that will work best for every organization, but there are some common tips that almost all organizations will find useful. It is important to get feedback on these questions from multiple groups of people, including board members, executive staff, administrative staff, volunteers, supporters, those who the organization is serving, and even outside organizations. Online surveys and e-mails can be helpful in reaching out to these groups, but face-to-face meetings can be effective as well. It is also recommended that each of these questions be explored as independently of each other as possible, and then cross-referenced to identify where they come together. That can help individuals be as creative as possible in exploring each area and identifying new opportunities that might otherwise me missed. Other organizations, such as United Way or governmental agencies, may have already spent time assessing community needs and those results are often available to utilize. Those assessments can be a great starting point and save significant time and money. Most important, however, is to not be afraid to revisit these questions often. Although this process does take time, it could pay dividends in many unexpected ways.