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SWOT for Transformation

by Phil Bartle, PhD


Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Contributions from stake holders, staff, volunteers, and community members that are valuable for preparing a vision for an organization and its programme, and for determining its potential to be transformed


A SWOT session is a means of obtaining from participants in a group, a set of observations and predictions that are very useful in planning. It can be used in a conference where the participants come from different locations and organizations. It can be used in a community or community based organization where the participants are unpaid and whose membership is based on residence. It can be used in an organization, such as an NGO, governmental department, or private firm, where the participants are paid staff.

This training document describes a SWOT session as it can be used by an assistance organization (NGO, aid project or organization, or Governmental agency) which is looking to transform its programme from one based upon charity, an emergency response to some disaster, to one based upon development assistance, based on an empowerment methodology. See: From Charity to Empowerment.

Apart from the kinds of responses desired, the SWOT can be used in other contexts than transformation of a programme, and is recommended to be used in annual or bi-annual review meetings.

SWOT is an acronym in which its four letters stand for: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

Practical Information:

Strength of what? Weakness of what?

Individuals (staff, volunteers, stake holders, residents), organizational set-up (structure and process), the programme or plan of action (planned, reactive and spontaneous), the management, the flow of materials, the flow of information, the decision making processes, the environment (social, physical, political, biological, legal, administrative, economic); these all have strengths and weaknesses. What are they?

Opportunities for what? Threats of what?

Where can and should the organization, programme and people go from here? What will contribute to getting there? What will stand in the way.

A vision, of course, is necessary, before any planning be done. If it is an idealistic and impractical vision, it will not be achieved. If it is based upon verifiable observations of the conditions and attributes that will contribute to success, and is realistic in identifying what may stand in the way of success, then it is more likely to succeed. A practical vision is based upon these observations.

What better source than the group of participants composed of stake holders, staff, volunteers, and/or community residents?

A Participatory Process:

A SWOT session is a means of obtaining information from participants. That information is composed of observations and analysis of those observations by the participants. As with the Brainstorm session, this session is one where the facilitator tries to draw out contributions from all members, especially from those individuals who may be less inclined to speak out in day-to-day situations.

To do so, it tends to treat the contributions of outspoken individuals in a matter- of-fact way, not enhancing or diminishing their importance or weight.

This session is best done where the participants are all literate and can write their own contributions. Where some participant are not literate, the session can be modified to have their children or grandchildren accompany them as helpers, discuss their observations quietly, and have them written down by their helpers.

In plenary (with all participants) the facilitator writes the four words on the board: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Some general discussion may follow. In the case of the desire of the agency to transform itself from a charity-based emergency response organization to a development assistance organization based on empowerment, then the facilitator may indicate some of the characteristics of the desired organization, and request that participants look at strengths and weakness that will contribute to or hinder becoming such an organization.

Where the group is at an annual or semi-annual review, then the goals and objectives of the organization should be known, but can be summarized at this time. The facilitator should ensure that the kinds of information (as in the section "Practical Information" noted above) needed is understood by all, through the general discussion as participants mention them, or by presenting them verbally. The facilitator then asks the participants to write their contributions on four pieces of paper, one for each of the four categories. They are asked not to write their names on the papers.

In a variation of the method, the facilitator may divide the whole group into smaller groups of four to six individuals, provide them with blank newsprint and markers, and ask them to come up with small group contributions. In this case, the small groups are best chosen randomly. One drawback to this is that some individuals might be reticent at contributing in front of friends, people with whom they work closely, their supervisors or persons they supervise; the advantage is that the total number of contributions is reduced because there is less duplication, and some persons contribute more in a small group discussion than they would alone in front of a piece of paper.

Writing alone on a piece of paper, without a name, provides some protection of anonymity, and some observations about sensitive issues can be revealed this way. The aim is to provide a non-threatening situation for participants to contribute as freely and without inhibitions as feasible, all the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that they can recall.

The SWOT session is participatory in the sense that all participants are encouraged to contribute to the final output. It is similar to the "Brainstorm" session, which is based on the "Four Key Management Questions," but is more appropriate in larger groups during the preparation of an organization for transition, or for an ongoing situation such as an annual or semi annual review.

The "Brainstorm" is best used when setting up a new project or organization, works best in smaller groups than a SWOT session, and can be effectively used in the transformation process when the participants are a smaller group of managers.

Collate the Information:

When the information is written on the four sets of papers, it needs to be grouped together. Volunteers or assistants can collect all the papers, and put them into four piles, one for each category. The facilitator, then, using the board, groups the observations, putting same or similar comments together; eliminating duplication.

When doing so, the facilitator points out that the results are the product of the group as a whole, not just some biasses or presuppositions of a few individuals. This is important, especially if there are to be major changes in the organization and the content of the programme; all members should feel comfortable that this is a group process, not dominated by factions or individuals.

Explain that the information will be used in preparing a “Vision” paper for a transformation of the programme, or for any changes resultant from an annual review. This is not just an exercise of the participants participating in a vacuum,but is a needed contribution to the planning and management process.

As in the brainstorm session, the observations in each category can be ranked in order of importance. This is not mandatory in a SWOT session, but it will help in drawing up an holistic analysis of the overall information.

It is very useful if the facilitator can verbally summarize, with help from the participants, the main observations of the SWOT exercise. Point out that some strengths for some purposes may be weaknesses for other purposes, and that the analysis of the observations can contribute to a vision of the future of the organization.

Similarly, opportunities for some actions may be threats for others. Explain also that the results will be recorded, and that they will be used in the preparation of a draft "Vision" paper for where the organization, its people and its programme, should go from here.

Keep your word. Do not let the papers and newsprint sheets gather dust on a shelf; use the information to put together a written summary and analysis, for distribution among all the participants. This can be produced and distributed within a week of the session.

Expected Observations:

The observations generated by the participants should not include any major surprises to the organizers and coordinators of the programme and the administrators of the organization.

Strengths will include the wisdom and experiences learned by the staff. Some of their skills may be valuable for continuing in the same way, but may be a hindrance to making an organizational or programme change. For example, an emergency response programme needs to have people highly skilled and experienced in inventory management and logistics, and in making decisions, based on demographic and other calculations, on behalf of victim or client groups. This may be a strength if a staff member is able to transfer such calculation skills to the beneficiaries. It may be a weakness in converting to a programme where such decisions need to be made by the beneficiaries, not the assistance agency.

In general, if staff have the potential to learn how to train others in the skills that they have, and can learn how to release the control and co-ordinating function of the agency, then there will be more opportunities for the agency to convert from a charity methodology to an empowerment methodology. Some staff will not be able to change their attitudes, skills and methods, and they might better move to another charity organization, or to move to another location where the organization operates, where emergency response is needed.

If too many of the staff are not able to modify these, then the decision of the agency might be to close down operations there where emergency response is no longer needed, allow an empowerment programme from another agency come in, and move on to another country or location where the current strengths of the organization are most needed.

Managers, planners and administrators of the agency should pay close attention to the output of such a SWOT session in making decisions about whether to convert, close down, continue as before, or move elsewhere.


A SWOT session is a participatory group process which produces output valuable for annual planning or for deciding upon a major transformation of a programme.

Its power lies in the source of the information — staff, volunteers, beneficiaries and/or other stake holders — and is set up to provide a non-threatening environment to draw out even sensitive material that might not appear in other situations.

The set of observations about strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats would be collated and analysed, to remove duplication and to arrange the information so as to be useful in producing a "Vision" paper that would provide practical direction for an organization (its staff, volunteers, stake holders, organizational set-up and programme) which may be contemplating a major transformation, or wishes to base its future years on the experience and collective wisdom of previous years.


A SWOT Workshop:

A SWOT Workshop

© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2011.10.06

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