Questions to Ask before Completing a Competitor Analysis

If you are interested in landing multi-million dollar grants, pretty soon you’ll hear that you need to perform a competitor analysis. If you want to win, the thinking goes, you need to know who your potential competitors are along with their strengths and weaknesses.

Although it sounds like a good idea, in practice, a competitor analysis rarely (if ever) makes a difference when it comes down to writing the proposal. Hours go into researching competitors and summarizing their programs, funding, and presence, but in the end, often no one pays much attention to the compiled information.

So why is the competitor analysis done, if it doesn’t deliver any real value?

There are several arguments for conducting a competitor analysis, some more persuasive than others. However, the main (if unspoken) benefit of completing one is to give an organization a sense of control. Having a competitor analysis in hand fosters the belief that everything that can be done to create a winning proposal is being done. The value of the security and confidence this belief creates should not be discounted. The key is to remain aware of the limitations of the competitor analysis process and not lose sight of other activities that could have a greater impact.

What Is Covered in a Competitor Profile?

Competitor analysis in the context of grant writing means compiling information about organizations that do the same or similar work as your organization. Collecting information on competitors can be an ongoing activity for some organization. For others, the profile work only begins when a funding opportunity of interest is either anticipated or has been released.

When completing a competitor review, the organizations of highest interest will be the ones that consistently tend to pursue the same kind of grant opportunities as your organization. However, these same organizations are also your potential collaborators because of your shared interests. In fact, you probably know your major competitors quite well because you have partnered with them in the past and see representatives from these organizations on a regular basis at professional meetings, conferences, and workgroups. Most likely, you, or members of your staff, have been employed by one or more of your major competitors.

But knowing who they are may not feel like enough. This is where the competitor analysis comes in. You may want to compile as much information as you can about the current status and activities of your well-known competitors. In addition, you may want to dig  deeper to see if there are any lesser known organizations that could pose a new or rising threat to you.

As part of building a profile of a competitor, you might collect some or all of the following information:

Organizational Structure

  • Does the organization have non-profit or for-profit status?
  • Does the organization work alone or does it work with partners? If it has partners, does it have multiple partners that vary by project or does it have a fixed group of partners it works with as part of a consortium?
  • Does the organization work with subcontractors on a regular basis? If so, who are the main ones (and does your organization also work with them)?

Current projects

  • What are the names, project periods, and focus of the organization's current projects?
  • Who are its funders?

Financial Status 

  • Is the organization doing well financially? Did a large project recently end and now it needs to replace the funding stream?
  • Did it just land a huge contract? Could the organization be too busy with start-up activities to pursue another large grant at this time?

Hiring trends

  • Has the organization laid off (or hired) a lot of employees recently?
  • Does it appear to be actively recruiting in anticipation of a funding opportunity that your organization is also interested in applying to?

Interests

  • Is the organization trying to move into new areas (like the ones typically dominated by your organization)?
  • Does the organization have comparable (or even greater) capacity to lead a particular kind of project than your organization?

Staff

  • Who are the key people at the organization?
  • What are the strengths of the staff (what unique skill sets, if any, is it known for)?

Location

  • Where (city/region/country) does the organization work?
  • Where is it headquartered?
  • Does it have other office locations?

Reasons to Complete a Competitor Analysis

One rationale for completing a competitor analysis is the belief that the information derived from the competitor analysis will lead to a proposal that more effectively profiles organizational strengths. Armed with the knowledge of your competitors' strengths and weaknesses, in your proposal you can underscore your organization's strengths to counter where your know your competitors are strong. You can also highlight your organizational strengths in areas where you know your competitors are weak.

A second argument for performing a competitor analysis is that you can use it to identify your main competitors. Once identified, you can attempt to reduce the competition by asking some of the organizations to join your team. This has the potential to remove a competitor or two from the field, which is good news. The downside of this “win” is that adding partners immediately adds complexity to the proposal process.

A competitor analysis does have the potential to impact your work in positive ways. The problem isn't so much with the information, but with the amount of time spent collecting the information relative to the benefits received.  Fortunately, there is an easier way

Talking to Your Colleagues May Be

Better than Research

A more efficient way than online research to get information about competitors is to talk to your colleagues. Find out what they know. Not only will it be a faster way to get information, but you’ll probably get more relevant, actionable information. While talking to colleagues is a step in the traditional competitor analysis process, under this scenario, talking to your colleagues is where you begin (and possibly end) the process. Based on what you learn from your colleagues, you'll decide what to do next, which may, or may not, involve doing further research.

In most cases, a short conversation with co-workers will quickly identify the organizations you have the greatest likelihood of bidding against. With this information in hand, you can decide what to do next. If you determine you need more information to evaluate the threat which a particular organization poses, you can start your online research—but now it will be a targeted search for specific information instead of a general sweep.

It is reassuring to create detailed profiles of your competitors. However, if the information you amass will not impact your decision to apply to a funding opportunity or how you plan to approach the proposal, it isn't worth doing. In comparison, through the process of talking to your colleagues, you are gathering kernels of information, deciding what you need to know more about, and acting in an intentional manner to get the information you actually need to make decisions.

Focus on Being Responsive to the RFA

If you ask funders why a proposal did not get funded, 9 times out of 10 you’ll be told it was because the proposal wasn’t responsive. The request for applications (RFA) is you guide, and when it comes down to writing a winning proposal it’s the only thing that matters.

It is more important to write a proposal that is responsive to the RFA than to write a proposal that counters your competitors' strengths.

Think about it this way: When you prepare your cover letter and resume for a specific job, are you thinking about all the other applicants who might be applying for the job and what they have on their resume? Probably not. You are thinking of the job description in front of you, what you know about the employer, and how best to present your skills, your story, and your experience so you look like a great match for the job advertised. You are focused on being responsive to the job description and the employer’s needs.

It is the same with an RFA. The RFA is the job advertisement. If you want to spend a few hours researching  your competitors, that's fine.  It may uncover useful information about potential partnerships or give you an idea of how stiff the competition will be for a particular opportunity.

However, before you dedicate a lot of your time to researching your competitors, ask yourself how you’ll use the information collected and what practical benefit it will have on how you approach the proposal. If the answer is that you already know you are going to submit a proposal, and you already have an outline and strategy for your response, you may have all the information you need.