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.

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.

How to define your organization’s unique value

In my last post, I discussed how a theory of change can help your organization to focus its mission. This is the result of better defining your organization’s unique niche within the system in which it operates.

But how do we identify our organization’s unique value proposition? What parameters can guide us to determining our unique niche within the system? What will tell us how we can be most effective at creating the change we wish to see?

There are three components to a unique value proposition:

  • The benefit you offer to your constituents
  • How you are solving the problem
  • How you are different from others

The first describes the good stuff you do or provide, while the second identifies how that good stuff actually responds to the need and solves the problem you’re tackling. The third point is about how you distinguish yourselves from others working on the same issue, whether it be in approach, methods, or focus (thematically or geographically).

The theory of change is critical for laying the foundation of understanding about the problem, the other actors in your problem space, and the difference approaches to solving the problem and creating your vision.

Then when it comes time to define an organization’s unique value proposition, I ask questions around three areas:

Competencies. What is your organization good at? What skills and technical expertise does your staff bring to the table? What have you accomplished in the past as evidence of this? And conversely, what are you not good at? In what areas are you weak that you are less likely to be successful? Where have you not been successful or where have others been more successful than you in the past?

Need. Sure, you may be good at something, but is it needed? When you look at the system in which you work, do your strengths align with one or more areas that will contribute to transforming the system? How does your work make a significant contribution to solving the problem in the long run? How is what you’re doing today going to make it easier for people tomorrow? And conversely, in what ways does your work not solve the problem? What other approaches are needed that you will not do or that you are not prepared to do?

Position. So you’re good at something, and that something can help solve the problem, but is this something that others are already doing? Is what you’re offering different from what is already being done? If so, can you define and demonstrate those differences? Conversely, are there areas of need where others are not intervening that fit your competencies? Is there something that needs to get done that no one else is doing and you could do successfully? Could you adapt your organization to do what’s needed?

By looking at what an organization can do well, how what it does affects change, and its positioning relative to others, it becomes much easier to understand the unique value proposition. This in turn makes it easier to attract support for your work, because it is important, effective, and unlike anything else out there. And who wouldn’t want to support a worthy cause like that?

Do you know your organization’s UVP? Do you have a clear theory of change that helps you understand your organization’s purpose and positioning? How would understanding your organization’s UVP help you with your messaging and fundraising?

If you’re interested in developing a theory of change that does all of the above, check out The ToC Workshop, a special eight-week program designed to help you get the most out of a theory of change for your organization.