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How to Identify External Factors When Planning for Your Nonprofit

Early in the planning process, you need to collect information about external factors that influence your nonprofit’s operation. Someone, or a subcommittee of the planning committee, should find the answers to the following questions and distribute them to everyone on the committee before the formal planning meetings begin:

  • Are other nonprofits providing similar services in the community? If so, how are our services different? Should we be working together?

  • What are the demographic trends in our area? Will these trends have an impact on the number of people who may need or use our services?

  • What are the trends in the professional arena in which our nonprofit operates? Are new methods being developed? Does the future show a shortage of professionally trained staff? Is technology changing the way people acquire knowledge or services?

  • How stable are the funding sources on which we depend? What about changes in government funding? Can we find new potential sources of funding?

The decisions you make are only as good as the information on which you base them. Therefore, it’s important to find the best and most up-to-date data available that may have an impact on your organization and its programs, and it’s important not to overlook unfavorable trends.

You may want to collect information from the general public or a particular constituency of your nonprofit — perhaps its clients, major donors, foundation representatives, and other nonprofits that work closely with you. Surveys, interviews, and focus groups are ways to gather input from the public. Before you undertake any of these techniques, however, spend some time thinking about what you want to learn.

If possible, consult with someone experienced in preparing surveys or interview protocols, because the phrasing of questions and the way you distribute your surveys affect the answers you get. Look for expertise in this area from consulting firms that work with nonprofits, at local colleges and universities, or from marketing or market-research firms.

Bad information leads to bad decisions. Or, put another way, garbage in, garbage out. So when gathering background information to guide planning decisions, take the time to get the most accurate, up-to-date facts available.

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