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Redefining competition with the Matrix (but without Keanu Reeves)

By Shannon Sage

Redefining competition with the Matrix (but without Keanu Reeves)

To maximize resources and funding, organizations need to focus on what they do best and outsource the rest. Easy to say, right? That concept is harder to do in practice. The MacMillan Matrix, a tool developed by Wharton School of Business professor Ian MacMillan, was specifically designed to tackle this task.

The Matrix can help you discover the program areas that are most needed in your community and that you’re in the best position to provide. The Matrix is based on the following assumptions:

  • Nonprofits should avoid duplicating services to ensure that limited resources are used well and quality of service is maximized.
  • Nonprofits should focus on a limited number of high-quality services, instead of providing many mediocre services.
  • Nonprofits should collaborate so that a continuum of service can be provided with each partner focusing on specific pieces.

The Matrix therefore helps organizations think about some very pragmatic questions:

  • Are we the best organization to provide this service?
  • Is competition good for our clients?
  • Are we spreading ourselves too thin, without the capacity to sustain ourselves?
  • Should we work cooperatively with another organization to provide services?

Here is the step-by-step process to apply this Matrix to your organization:

1. Assess each of your programs in relation to the four criteria in the next four sections; each is placed in the MacMillan Matrix.

For example, a program that’s a good fit is deemed attractive and strong competitively, but if there’s a high alternative coverage, you would assign it to Aggressive Competition.

2.  Evaluate which programs are worth competing for aggressively and which ones should be divested.

Critically look at your programs to determine which ones to keep and which ones to eliminate.

3.  Identify whether you have any programs that are a good fit with your mission.

These programs should have few competitive alternatives, and your organization’s offering should be very strong. MacMillan refers to these programs as the Soul of the Agency and describes them as difficult business but essential to the members.

A detailed overview of the model can be downloaded at The Forbes Group website. The report is free although site registration is required.

Using the MacMillan Matrix is a fairly straightforward process of assessing each current (or prospective) program according to four criteria (covered in the next sections). See Figure below.

#1: Alignment with mission

Services and programs that belong or fit within an organization are in alignment with the mission or a good fit. Criteria for a good fit include the following:

  • Supports the purpose and mission of the organization
  • Draws on existing skills in the organization
  • Shares resources and coordinate activities with programs

#2: Program attractiveness

Program attractiveness is the degree to which a program is attractive to the organization from an economic perspective, such as whether the program easily attracts resources. Here’s a list of criteria that makes a program attractive:

  • High appeal to groups capable of providing current and future support and stable funding
  • Need from a large client base and low resistance to program
  • Appeal to volunteers
  • Measurable, reportable program results
  • Able to discontinue with relative ease, if necessary
  • Intended to promote the self-sufficiency or self-rehabilitation of client base

#3: Alternative coverage

Alternative coverage is the number of other organizations that deliver a similar program to similar constituents. If there are no other large, or very few small, comparable programs being provided in the same region, the program is classified as low coverage. Otherwise, the coverage is high.

#4: Competitive position

Competitive position is the degree to which the organization has a stronger capability and potential to deliver the program than other agencies. Most programs can’t be classified as being in a strong competitive position unless they have some clear basis for declaring superiority over all competitors in that program category. Criteria for a strong competitive position include the following:

  • Good location and delivery system
  • Large pool of loyal clients, communities, or support groups
  • Past success of securing funding and ability to raise funds, particularly for this type of program
  • Superior track record (or image) of service delivery
  • Better quality service or service delivery than competitors with the most cost effective delivery of service
  • Superiority of technical skills and organizational skills needed for the program
  • Ability to conduct needed research into the program and properly monitor program performance


Five years ago, there was little funding for case management by AIDS Service Organizations. Unwilling to let clients fend for themselves in getting the help they needed, many organizations devoted staff time to this service. At the time, this was a soul of the agency program. These days, this program is more attractive (fundable), although there’s also growing alternative coverage. Therefore, organizations in a strong position to serve the clients well, with cultural competence and program expertise, should aggressively compete. Those in a weak competitive position should get out of the business.

Shannon Sage

Shannon is a Client Engagement Manager at OnStrategy with experience in marketing, social media and strategic planning. She manages the survey database, supports the integration of survey results and analysis, and she answers client’s questions and concerns.




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