Does your solution align with the problem?

When making the case for your organization’s work, it’s important that you can clearly and convincingly articulate the problem. In my experience, most organizations can paint a vivid picture of what’s wrong (though some struggle to talk about why it matters) but a common mistake I see is a misalignment of the problem and the solution.

Misalignment of the problem and the solution occurs when the solution presented does not clearly solve the problem as it’s described. For example:

  • The problem is defined as hunger in a city due to a lack of housing and employment options. The solution? To provide food through a food bank. This is a short-term, immediate remedy but it doesn’t address the housing and employment issues stated in the problem.
  • The problem is defined as widespread deforestation happening as a result of the advancing agricultural frontier, displaced communities, and encroaching industries. The solution? To engage local communities in planting trees. This solution adds trees back to the forest, but does not respond to the larger issues driving the problem (nor does it do so at the scale of the problem).
  • The problem is defined as a declining interest by children in science due to the way schools and assessments direct educators to teach science-related subjects. The solution? A project-based curriculum that teaches students about science in a more engaging way. This solution does provide an alternative that achieves the intended goal, but it doesn’t take into account the factors that are preventing teachers from using the same approach in their classes in the first place.

In these examples, you can see how the problem could be well-described in a compelling narrative. And the solutions – all of which are good, necessary ideas – could be clearly explained in terms of goals, strategies, and execution. However, the linkage between the solutions and their respective problems is weak or missing.

When you describe the problem, you should frame it in a way that sets up your organization’s solution. Make it clear to the reader or listener why your solution is necessary, appropriate, and logical. Ideally, with a theory of change and a clear strategic plan, you can clarify both the problem and your organization’s response. But another quick-and-dirty fix is to work backwards: take a look at the work you do, and think about what problem it is directly responding to. The work is done to solve a specific problem, so make your problem statement a description of what your work is designed to achieve.

The work your organization is doing is important, but you have to be able to articulate it to others if you want the support you need to get it done. Learn to align your problem statement with your work so others can easily understand the value of what you do.

Why should I support you?

Time and time again I encounter organizations who cannot articulate their unique value. They can talk at length about the work they do and why it’s important, but they don’t have a solid argument for why their work deserves support over all the others out there. 

If there were no other organizations out there doing similar work, you wouldn’t need to say why you’ve chosen the work you’re doing nor tell me why you’re the one best suited to do it. But in a world where lots of organizations are doing similar and even overlapping work, and where donors and funders have access to many options for their dollars, why should anyone support you instead of someone else?

Think about the way for-profit businesses try to distinguish themselves from the competition. Verizon has the most extensive network. AT&T has the fastest network. Sprint has the cheapest plans. All three overlap in their work but they have found ways to distinguish themselves from the competition and answer the question: why you?

Look, I’m not a fan of competition, but that’s the reality. There are other organizations working on the same issue as yours. They have made a case for why their work is important, so why should I support you over them? Donors have a limited capacity to give, and oftentimes a limited willingness to give to unfamiliar organizations. What’s your argument for why you – your approach, your work, and your qualifications – are worthy of support?

Quite honestly, some organizations are doing redundant work and donors are better off giving their money to someone with more experience and expertise. But many organizations are doing great, important work – they just don’t communicate how they provide a unique value to solving the problem

Every organization should be able to say why they are doing their work and why they are best suited to do it. Your organization has chosen a particular approach to the problem, one that you believe will succeed. Why did your organization choose its approach, out of all the different possible approaches? Why is your approach the better or most valuable one to take? And why are you the best suited to do this work and succeed?

Here’s a few possible ways to answer these questions and set yourself apart:

  • We are distinctly different. Others may be taking a similar approach, but there is a distinct element to your approach that makes it more valuable and/or more likely to succeed. Here you would need to describe how your approach is different and better for solving the problem.
  • We’re filling a gap. No one else is taking the approach you are but there is a strong need for it. You would have to demonstrate why your approach is necessary, and how the problem won’t get solved without it. 
  • We’re engaging a critical audience. You are using an approach used by others but working with a group that no one else is addressing. You would need to show that this audience is essential to the cause.
  • We have unique expertise. You may take the same approach as others but you have a unique skill set that makes you more qualified to succeed. For this argument, you would need to clearly demonstrate that your organization’s expertise is distinct and superior to others.
  • We have a proven record. You may have chosen the same approach as others but you have done a better job at achieving results. You would need to demonstrate concrete and measurable differences between your accomplishments and others like you.

In a competitive landscape, it’s not just about why what you do is important, but why what you do is more valuable than other options. Are you a Verizon or an AT&T? What makes you stand above the rest? What makes you more likely to succeed? And why should someone support you over all the other organization’s in your field?

Whether you like it or not, there’s competition for others’ support. So know your unique value and make sure to communicate it as clearly and as often as possible.

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.