Do nonprofits have competitors?

I cut my teeth in organization development and high stakes fundraising at a national affiliate of a child sponsorship organization back in the early 80s. We spent a LOT of our time worrying about “the competition,” i.e. the other child sponsorship organizations.? It took me a number of years, but I’ve come to believe that this concept of competition between nonprofits is not terribly helpful and does little to help us create societal change.

I believe that social benefit organizations (aka nonprofits) are off kilter when their planning is driven by how to outpace their sister organizations instead of defeating social ills.

When you map the system(s) in which your organization works, why not treat other organizations working on issues that you care about as allies or assets that can help you reach your community betterment goals? I like to use a “Force Field Analysis” to help clients find the leverage that shifts the system. When you list the forces that are driving you toward your goal, hopefully you’ll find your sister nonprofits among those driving forces.

The true competition is (are?) the forces resisting the change that you seek. They might include indifference, lack of understanding or awareness, opposite values, or interests that seem in opposition, among others. They could be embodied in another organization, or a single person , or an entire community. Are true competition is in the marketplace of ideas.

For the most part, we don’t even compete when it comes to money … perhaps with the exception of grants which, if you take any one funder, are definitely limited. But if we consider the potential for giving from the public at large, then our competition isn’t necessarily each other (well, for the most part… more on that tiny little top tier of nonprofit wealth in another post), but mainly all the other discretionary spending taking place out there. There are billions of dollars spent on worldly possessions we could easily live without. As nonprofits, we need to do a much better job communicating to our neighbors the benefits of philanthropy.

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