Because the social sector is in the business of changing the world, we often are inclined to see every need or idea as a call to action. The result of taking on too many opportunities comes in the form of mission creep, donor confusion or staff burnout. Research indicates that poor planning is at the root of most of these failures. No one likes to fail, but starting a program or social enterprise has inherent risk. In our office, we often encourage one another and clients to take risks, but to mitigate the risk by “failing early and failing cheaply.” So, how is this possible with a new program opportunity? To do this intentionally, we encourage the use of opportunity assessments to help make a GO or NO GO decision. As I often say – every idea is a good idea, but not every idea is viable.
A quick opportunity assessment analyzes the viability of an opportunity – does the idea warrant further investment of time, effort and resources? It often uses internal analysis to evaluate the opportunity and it should be relatively inexpensive. If you determine the opportunity is impractical, you haven’t invested much. If you determine the opportunity has a high likelihood of success, you have a solid starting point for a more detailed feasibility assessment, business plan or grant.
Here is the four-step process we recommend when board, staff or stakeholders want to test an idea:
Decide which opportunity you intend to evaluate. Sometimes it is helpful to evaluate more than one, so it is a relative assessment of which opportunity is the best one. For example, if you happen to have extra physical space and want to utilize it, there are many ways to do so – you can rent it to another nonprofit or you can expand services. Some solutions will be more mission-oriented and others will be more money-oriented.
Establish Decision Criteria
Before you move forward with any additional steps, how will you decide? What factors are important? Use our sample template as a starting point.
Assess Internal Capabilities
Review your vision/mission and use your strategic plan as a guide to decide whether an opportunity is right for your organization and its stage of growth. Remember your organization’s strategy helps you decide both what to do and what NOT to do, so you can be hyper-focused on your unique value proposition. It might also be important to assess the external landscape through a competitive analysis to determine if yours is the right organization to take on a new opportunity or if collaborating with partners might be a better option.
Analyze and Rate Criteria
Since you established the criteria upfront, the analysis becomes simple. You just apply what you learned and know to the pre-established criteria. To make this even easier and more objective, we recommend adding a rating system – Low to High or 1 to 3. It allows you (and others) to assign each decision criterion a score enabling you to determine a final value for each opportunity. This process should give you an objective idea of whether the opportunity has enough viability for additional steps.
Our favorite decision criteria for an initial opportunity assessment are:
Ease of Operations
- Internal Expertise & Capacity: What resources are needed and how hard are they to get and keep? Do we have the right people and skills sets to be successful?
- Operational Complexity: How easy will the opportunity be to launch – for us and for others?
- Synergy: Does this complement our existing work? Will it require a little or a lot to integrate into our existing work?
- Fit with Mission: Is this opportunity aligned with our mission?
- Impact on Constituents & Community: Does this opportunity add real value for the community? Does it positively impact our constituents? Are there easier paths to work together with someone else?
Return on Investment
- Start-up & Operating Costs: How much will it cost to start? How much will it cost to operate and sustain? Do we have access to enough capital to support it?
- Market Demand: How large is the potential client/customer base? How favorable are the trends in the market?
- Expected Revenue: What are the possible sources of revenue? Are there diverse sources of revenue?
New ideas or opportunities are all around us. The most successful organizations have an intentional process for vetting a new idea or program. Then, when you do pursue them, you can put all your energy behind them to ensure they have the best chance of success. If you have other ways your organization pressure-tests new ideas or opportunities, we would love for you to share them with us.