Conducting a SWOT

For several decades a favored measurement tool for businesses of all sizes in addition to nonprofit organizations, a SWOT (“strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats”) exercise is a group process that provides a baseline assessment that is a snapshot in time of current status. It can be very helpful because the four-part formula is generally easily understood, with strengths and weaknesses typically internal in nature and at least in part within the control of the organization, and the opportunities and threats generally external and not directly within the organization’s control.

A SWOT is typically done at the front end of a strategic planning process or budgeting season. However, don’t overlook the value of a SWOT after a major event as a way to capture feedback and make sure you don’t miss the lessons learned. We’ve also seen a group–like a board–do self-analysis to get to core issues, act more productively, and improve its culture.

Here are a few reminders for a successful SWOT exercise:

1. Err on the side of inclusion when inviting participants. Make sure they know it’s a SWOT so they come ready to participate.

2.  Allow at least an hour–preferably 80 or 90 minutes.

3.  Use a white board or a big tablet on an easel. This is a brainstorming session. Capture everything and don’t editorialize if you are the recorder. (Obviously, RMA often conducts SWOT exercises with clients. There can be great value in having a third-party facilitator and recorder.)

4.  Some ideas cross categories, as when something may sound like both a weakness and a threat, so try to be as specific as possible on each point so that the proper category is obvious.

5.  Don’t get lost in the weeds. “Employees do not get enough time off” should probably be reflected in the observation of a broader weakness, i.e., “Employee handbook is overdue for review and update.” Similarly, an editorial comment, “Our price is too low,” may not reflect the feelings of everyone in the room. Better: “Pricing strategy needs to be evaluated.”

6.  Sometimes gratuitous compliments (“The board is awesome!”), which may not be terribly helpful, can be countered with a specific suggestion of an opportunity (“Our board members could be more active as community ambassadors.”).

7.  As in a blue sky exercise, try not to let today’s limits of money, people, or time affect suggestions of opportunities.

8.  At RMA, we often send out a link to an electronic version of SWOT questions a few days ahead of the live group version. Some people are more candid online. At the least, a survey gets people thinking.

9.  Stay on task. An intriguing idea for an opportunity may get people distracted, chiming in on how the idea would work, and that’s a different conversation for a different day.

10. Get the captured notes into the computer as soon as possible and remember to date the document before sharing with the group along with your thanks.

Finally, at a later session, put your work to practical use.

  • What can we do to maximize existing strengths and build on them?
  • Do any of the weaknesses or threats suggest opportunities for collaboration?
  • Would a small work group be willing to focus on solutions to weaknesses?
  • Would a small work group outline ways to approach one or more of the opportunities?
  • What can we do differently in the next year, if anything, to hedge against threats?

1 Comment

  1. Susan
    August 31, 2012

    Our small organization just completed a board planning retreat and we utilized SOAR (Strengths Opportunities Aspirations & Results). Now having done both SWOT (with another organization) and SOAR I have to advocate strongly for SOAR. There is a lot to be said for the appreciative inquiry and assets/strengths-based approach to nonprofit planning (or business planning for that matter). In our case, members of the board focused on what they could and will, rather than all the things we can’t do because of X,Y or Z external factors. We created a great plan in the end.

    Case Western has a lot of great AI resources at:

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