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By: Steve Zimmerman

In what areas does your nonprofit organization influence your community? An afterschool program could be part of the youth development, education, or public health sectors — or all three! Understanding markets is challenging for organizations in part because they intersect and influence so many different aspects of their community, turning a straight forward task into a multi-faceted challenge.

The Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO), for example, often speaks of itself as an arts and culture organization. However, with a mission to “empower young people from diverse backgrounds to joyfully pursue musical excellence while building crucial life skills” MYSO is easily seen as a youth development organization, placing it in a different market. Defining an organization’s market may seem like a matter of semantics, but it plays an important role when articulating the value of the organization and pursuing funders.

Used with permission from the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Different programs within an organization may have different markets, but for purposes of understanding the overall context in which the organization operates, it is helpful to agree on one primary market. A statement of intended impact is a useful first step in providing this overarching context. The statement articulates the organization’s purpose by defining:

  • the primary audience the organization serves,
  • the desired outcomes it seeks and
  • how it demonstrates progress toward its goal.

It offers a long-term beacon about what the organization aims to accomplish and thereby helps to define the organization’s primary market by staking out its identity in relation to other organizations seeking the same goals. (For additional assistance breaking out your intended impact, refer to this template from The Sustainability Mindset).

Finding the right definition of the marketplace is more art than science, and the connected nature of issues nonprofit organizations seek to address means they may serve more than one market.

Each market description has its own list of potential constituents, collaborators and competitors. Focusing on one market description allows the organization to spend the time necessary to deeply understand it, as opposed to having a shallow understanding of multiple spaces. Along with the statement of intended impact, leadership should consider how constituents –including funders– view the organization’s market.

For example, many funders of MYSO debate between funding their efforts or those of the Boys and Girls Clubs. Likewise, the youth that participate are choosing among music, sports and other academic interests. With these considerations in mind, leadership of MYSO will find it most beneficial to view their organization as a youth development organization and claim the corresponding market. This market definition will allow the organization to better understand all the influences on their ability to accomplish their mission.


This blog is part two of our series on Community Influence & Understanding Nonprofit Markets, which is drawn from our new white paper by the same name. Check out our first blog on this topic, Why Understanding Nonprofit Markets Matters.