See your nonprofit through the eyes of a stranger: Hire a mystery shopper

When you’re running a nonprofit organization and focused on executing that strategic plan you wrote seven months ago, you know the world is changing around you. What can you do to get an outside-in perspective you can use to make course corrections?  

Answer: Take a page of out of the for-profit retail playbook and hire a “mystery shopper” to gain a new perspective on your user and donor base. 

Mystery shoppers are a well-established tool in many financially driven service sectors, but the principles underlying the idea apply to any mission-driven organization. If you ran a café, you could hire someone to go to your establishment and buy something, then tell you about the experience. 

Take that model and apply it to your organization, with this caveat: This is not about snooping around, gathering business intelligence or gaining an unfair advantage over a competitor. It’s about looking at your organization with a fresh set of eyes, seeing it in a broader context of players, learning some new practices and then imitating the good ones. 

Shopping for market intelligence

Find someone who is perceptive and curious, but not from your industry. You don’t want someone who has provided similar services, because you don’t want to be blinded by any bias that comes from an insider’s view or jargon. Come up with a list of questions and share them with your shopper. 

Apply this approach, for example, to your work with donors. Ask your shopper to look at a few organizations with missions that are comparable to yours or that overlap. You’ll learn how your organization makes it easy to attract and retain new supporters (or not). Your shopper will also be able to describe how similar organizations communicate.

Your shopper will be able to give you more targeted information if you’ve already defined your key customer personas and mapped their customer journeys.  When your shopper returns, listen actively to what that person observed.

Once you’ve heard the feedback, take it to your colleagues. Make sure your senior leadership team hears the perspectives from the outside. Keep the conversation short and deliver information that each person can use to become more effective at the tasks at hand.

Shifts happen

The mystery shopper concept is a good way to introduce iterative change to your organization, empowering you to make mid-course corrections from your annual strategic plan and budget. 

Strategic plans are useful in mapping the overal direction of your organization, and creating annual budgets aligned with goals that you can share with donors and other stakeholders. They’re also good for writing the marketing materials that explain how you fulfill your mission and helping everyone on your team understand how the items on their daily ‘to-do’ list roll up into some bigger story and broader mission. 

The problem with strategic plans, as we like to say at dPrism, is that “shifts happen.” Priorities change. New opportunities pop up in May you did not imagine back in November when you and your leadership team wrote your plan.

By keeping an ear to the marketplace, a mystery shopper can help you catch wind of the shifts before they’re at your doorstep – and allow your organization to respond and adapt to what you learn about your stakeholders (donors, customers, employees and influencers).

My colleagues have written about the value of iteration and the steps to actually execute a strategic vision and how to figure out how many people you need to actually be effective. 

Employing a mystery shopper can give you an outside-in perspective that keeps your team fresh. Try it twice a year and it will become part of your organization’s DNA.