Do you know your competition?

No person is an island, and neither is an organization. All organizations exist within an ecosystem of other actors who are working on the same issue

Organizations are often familiar with their partners – those they work with who help them carry out their work – but not as many are aware of other peers – those they don’t work with who take similar or different approaches to the same issue. 

Knowing the full ecosystem of actors can be very valuable to organizations. For starters, it can help you to identify potential partners who can advance your work and your cause. The idea of collective impact was created to encourage organizations to think about how they can work together to achieve more than any one individual organization could. While there are challenges to teamwork, there is also a lot of value of coordinating and collaborating your efforts with others. 

Moreover, it can be a challenge to achieve your mission if your work is in direct competition with another organization. If you’re taking the same approach with the same constituents, you will constantly be competing for resources and attention. Understanding what everyone else is working on allows you to identify the gaps and opportunities to avoid competing with others. It makes your organization more strategic and will make your organization more effective and more efficient in the long run.

And if you want to attract support to your organization, you need to know what sets you apart from others. Of all the organizations working on this issue, why should people choose to support you over the others? Determining your unique value proposition means knowing what makes you unique and the only way to know that is to know who your competitors are. Once you can identify that special something that makes you stand out from the rest, it will be easier to craft effective messages. 

A competitive analysis is an assessment of the other actors in your field – a scan of other actors, what they do, and how they are similar or different from your organization. Many organizations never conduct a competitive analysis, and as a result, they miss opportunities to collaborate with others, they waste time and effort submitting grants to funders that are committed to other organizations, and they have trouble articulating their unique value proposition. (In fact, many organizations I know don’t realize that what they think is their unique value isn’t actually all that unique…) 

To conduct a competitive analysis, start with the organizations you’re familiar with – partners, direct competitors, and those that work with the same constituents. Then start expanding to others who work in the same geography on the same issue. You don’t have to include every organization – just the ones that are relevant to the space you occupy in the ecosystem. This will help you identify areas of mutual interests and areas where you occupy a unique niche.

If you want to get the most out of a competitive analysis, include information about who funds what organizations and to what extent. Understanding the funding landscape can help you see opportunities for new funding and be more selective – or creative – in where you pursue funding. For instance, if a competitor is supported by a particular funder, you might choose to focus on funders that aren’t committed to that organization yet. Or you might pursue co-funding with another organization to get more support for your work and more exposure to a new funder. But you won’t know what potential awaits until you look.

And that’s the whole point: the more of the bigger picture you can see, the more opportunities for collaboration, enhancing your work, and articulating your unique value you can find.

So try a competitive analysis with your organization and see how it can improve your organization’s effectiveness and build your base of support.


What makes for a great leader?

Every organization should be a leader – a leader of a cause and a leader of a community of supporters for that cause. Leadership is the ability to influence a group toward the achievement of a vision or a set of goals, and mission-driven organizations need to successfully bring people together to accomplish long-term impact.

But what makes for a good leader? Let’s take a look at what the research says about the traits and behaviors of individual leaders and then apply it to organizations.

Personality traits

When looking at the characteristics of leaders, there are certain personality traits that are important for their emergence and effectiveness. Extraversion is probably the most important trait, though it’s more strongly related to how leaders emerge than their effectiveness. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: extraverts enjoy talking to others, are comfortable with groups of people, and know how to assert themselves (though being too assertive can make a leader less effective). Conversely, introverts prefer to be alone and don’t like being in front of a crowd, which might make it difficult to attract, retain, and bring together followers.

Conscientiousness (self-discipline and responsibility) and openness (to new ideas and experiences) also show strong relationships to effective leadership. Leaders who are disciplined and keep commitments (conscientious) and who are creative and flexible (open) are more likely to be successful leaders.

Emotional intelligence (EI) – the ability to recognize and regulate emotions – is also an important trait. Someone may have a great vision, excellent training, fantastic ideas, and a highly analytical mind and still not make a great leader without EI. This is because a core component of EI is empathy – being sensitive to others’ needs and feelings. A leader who effectively displays and manages emotions will find it easier to connect with and influence the emotions of followers.

Charismatic leadership

Charismatic leaders are those to whom followers attribute heroic or extraordinary leadership abilities based on their behaviors. (Fun fact: the word charisma is from the Greek for “gift.”) There are four key characteristics of charismatic leaders:

  1. An articulated vision. They express a better future as an idealized goal, and they are able to state the importance of the vision in terms that others understand.
  2. Personal risk. They are willing to put themselves out there, incur high costs, and sacrifice themselves to achieve the vision.
  3. Sensitivity to followers’ needs. They are perceptive of others’ qualities and responsive to their needs and feelings.
  4. Unconventional behavior. They do things that are considered novel or even contrary to social norms.

Charismatic leaders can gather followers by presenting a clear and compelling vision, standing by their values, and being attuned to the needs and feelings of others. Of course, there are charismatic leaders who aren’t effective – the ones who are so larger than life that they pursue their own personal agendas – and the effectiveness of a charismatic leader can depend on the context and the vision itself. (After all, Hitler was a charismatic leader who convinced others to pursue a disastrous vision…)

Transformational leadership

There’s a whole body of research dedicated to differentiating between transactional leaders – those who guide followers towards goals by clarifying roles, tasks, and rewards – and transformational leaders – those who inspire followers to transcend their self-interests for the good of the organization.

It is important to note that these two modes of leadership are not in conflict. Transformational leadership builds on transactional leadership, producing levels of effort and performance beyond what transactional leadership can do.

So what characterizes transformational leaders? How do leaders get their followers to go above and beyond for the cause? There are four key qualities:

  1. Individualized consideration. They give personal attention to each follower and treats them individually.
  2. Intellectual stimulation. They promote intelligence, rational thinking, and careful problem solving.
  3. Inspirational motivation. They set high expectations, use metaphors to focus others’ efforts, and express important values in simple ways.
  4. Idealized influence. They provide a sense of purpose, instill pride, gain respect, and build trust.

Like charismatic leaders, transformational leaders present a clear vision, but they also work to build consensus, increase follower self-efficacy (that “can do” spirit), and engage followers in taking on the responsibility of achieving the mission. Organizations with transformational leaders have more decentralized management and give followers a greater sense of autonomy.

Organizational Leadership

So what can organizations learn from all this? How can an organization as a whole serve as an effective leader that rallies support for its cause and its work? Since a list of fours seems to be the theme in this post, here’s another:

  1. Present a clear vision and purpose. In your communications work, be sure to articulate your idealized version of the world and how it’s better than the current situation. Explain why it’s important, what the benefits are, and what it means for your audiences and what they care about.
  2. Be sensitive to your audiences. Whether it’s your constituents, your partners, your funders, your donors, or your supporters, always be empathetic, understanding, responsive, and open-minded. Keep the lines of communication open, seek out feedback, ask what you can do for others, give personal attention, and make time for people. Trusting relationships are how we get things done, but they must be built and maintained with compassion and authenticity.
  3. Set a good example. There’s truth in the adage, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” As a leader in the field, you should stand by your values, stay true to your word, and follow through on your promises and commitments. You should also be grounded, reasonable, rational, evidence-based, and level-headed – qualities that earn respect from people on all sides of an issue.
  4. Instill greatness. If you want people to follow you, it’s not enough to just show them the path towards your vision. You want to be transformational and inspire others to walk that path. Stay positive about the road ahead so people believe change can happen, but also be realistic about the challenges. Empower others to take action by talking about their role in creating change and giving them opportunities to do something concrete. Make your supporters feel connected and involved in the organization, and let them take some responsibility for the organization’s progress. Followers want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, something important and meaningful.

Organizations must connect with others and bring them together for a common goal. Just as individual leaders do, organizations must exhibit the right traits and behaviors to rally support and earn the respect, trust, and admiration of others. If you want your organization to succeed, invest in becoming a leading organization – one that inspires others to join your cause and helps you in achieving your mission.

Your vision statement shouldn’t be unique

I worked with a client recently on developing a theory of change, and part of the process involves coming up with a vision statement. The vision reflects the organization’s desired outcome for the system in which they work. In other words, what does the system look like in a perfect world?

When we came up with a vision statement, it was big – not just bold, but on a global scale that goes well beyond the capabilities of this little organization of just a few people. There were two questions that arose: Is this vision statement too ambitious? And is this vision statement unique enough to our organization?

Here’s the thing: no organization works alone to transform a system (though they may think and act like they do). Transformation of an entire system is a huge undertaking, one that requires a diversity of approaches and competencies. Systems are complex and multifaceted, and multiple types of interventions will be required. An organization that tries to tackle them all will find itself reaching beyond its capabilities. (Conversely, an organization that thinks there’s only one way to solve a problem will not reach far enough.) And because no one can do it alone, the vision statement shouldn’t be unique to any one organization, because hopefully others share your vision and are working with you towards the same goal.

Within any given system, there will be multiple organizations or entities, each trying to transform the system in a different way. Each organization therefore occupies its own niche (hopefully), but collectively they bring about a common vision for the system.

Take education for example. There are several different groups in the Bay Area working on improving the education system in Oakland. Some focus on teacher preparation, some focus on after-school programming, some focus on informal education programs, some focus on testing and standards, and others will focus on policy at the state and federal levels. Then there are government agencies and privates entities with their own goals and contributions to the education system. Each group has its own objectives, but they all are working towards a common vision: an Oakland school district that meets the needs of its students.

A lot of times organizations equate a theory of change with a strategy: if we do this, then we will achieve that. If a theory of change is done right, it takes a broader systemic view, and helps an organization to identify (1) the potential points of intervention, (2) its unique role in bringing about the vision (the mission), and (3) areas of needed coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. In this way, an organization can define its unique value while also understanding how all the different actors collectively create change.

Thus, the vision is a systemic view beyond the organization, a goal to be achieved collectively, and the mission statement is the organization’s role within that system, based on its strengths and competencies and the needs and opportunities in the system.

No organization is an island, and no organization can do it all. But together, with a shared vision and clearly defined roles, organizations can achieve more than any one of them can achieve alone.

Does your organization have a vision statement that defines a collective achievement? Does your organization’s mission statement reflect its unique role within the system? Are you working with others who share an interest in the same issues?