Though it may seem unlikely, a glimpse at your family tree can be helpful in thinking about competition in the social sector. Your family tree is a representation of your immediate, extended and distant relatives, which is much like how we can think about our own competition. Generally speaking, we tend to share more similarities and traits with immediate family members. We see them with more frequency and are more intimately familiar with their lives. The further removed you go in your family tree, the less obvious your ties. Competition works the same way – our direct, indirect and distant competitors share varying degrees of mission and marketing similarities.

Why is Tracing Our Competitive Roots Important? 

Understanding your competitive roots can shape your organization’s strategy. Knowing your competition is particularly important for launching a new service or social enterprisebuilding collective impact strategies or attracting investors. Understanding your competitors’ strategies can help you differentiate your own. Additionally, too many competitors in a field may be a sign that the market is saturated, adversarial or highly competitive on price. These are all factors that may dissuade an organization from starting a new venture. Considering all possible competitors in the space can help your organization build a winning strategy for your business plan that mitigates business risks.


How Can we Find Our Competitors? 

  • Immediate Family → Direct Competitors 
    Like immediate family members who share similar traits and characteristics, an organization’s direct competitors often have much in common. Direct competitors are the most obvious – they are in the same business, your staff likely sees their representatives at coalition meetings and your organizations compete for the same customers and funding.
    Example:  An afterschool program’s direct competitors are the other afterschool programs (public and private) operating in a reasonable geographic vicinity of the center.
  • Extended Family → Indirect Competitors
    To find your indirect competitors, take a step back in your family tree. Like extended family members who share the same roots, indirect competitors will offer official services to address the same need or problem, but in a different way or geography. They may not share a similar mission, but are near perfect substitutes to your service. Indirect competition also includes organizations that would be direct competitors if they operated in a closer geographic boundary.
    Example: An afterschool program’s indirect competitors include other activities designed to occupy children’s time and build skills like sports, extracurricular school programs (e.g., mock trial, student council) and volunteer opportunities. It also includes other afterschool programs in the state that may compete for the same funding, but not the same customers.
  • Distant Relatives →Distant Competitors
    Like a third cousin once removed with whom you think you have nothing in common except a remote ancestor, distant competitors are not always obvious. Distant competitors include alternatives to your product or service in the broadest sense. They do not share the same primary mission and are marketed differently, but they compete for the same population’s time and resources. Distant competition also includes free alternatives or apathy.
    Example: An afterschool program’s distant competitors include other alternatives that compete for kids’ time like part-time employment and entertainment venues like the movies, shopping malls or parks. It also includes parents sending their children home unsupervised or to be taken care of by other friends and relatives, and possibly an attitude that there is little value in afterschool programs.


As you define your strategic or business plans this summer, we hope you take a moment to consider all your competitors in the field and how they may impact your approach. Conducting thorough competitive analysis can make all the difference, and we invite you to share how it may have helped your organization succeed or fail fast and cheap. Stay tuned next week as we discuss Ideas vs. Execution.

Facebook Twitter Linkedin Plusone Email