Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Is Our Greatest Competition Ourselves?

Maybe it’s the fiscal climate, or maybe it’s the prevailing myths of our sector, but for whatever reason I find that nonprofit board and staff members alike have a common misperception – that our greatest competition is other organizations. This refrain comes up in fundraising conversations all the time, and far more subtly in explanations about why one organization cannot partner with another to achieve a greater result for the communities we serve.

Those of you who follow our newsletter know this isn’t the first time I’ve brought up the subject of competing with one another. In our August newsletter I wrote:

…as our state experiences economic uncertainty, our solutions need to be about what binds us together, not what separates us. We will have many opportunities to work together to be part of the solution in our state, but as the funding gets tighter, there will be great temptation to let ourselves become divided, competing and comparing our standing to one another, to be our own enemy instead of an ally.

Rather than simply being frustrated at this prevailing scarcity sentiment, I thought we could explore it together and work to reset to an abundance frame of mind.

In the Foraker Nonprofit Sustainability Model we make the case that one of the four most important aspects of staying on a path of sustainability is the ability to work collaboratively. Collaboration means many things on a continuum from informal sharing to coalitions, to administrative consolidation, to mergers, or to something completely new or unified that is more than any one of its parts.

All these stages have value because they create better opportunities to serve. It is rare these days that I find an organization that doesn’t believe in some positive aspect of working “better together.” But believing in it and doing it can be a huge leap for some. What is their challenge?

It’s easy to blame the other organization or person, but is that really where the problem lies? Couldn’t it actually be us? Isn’t it possible that our own beliefs and ideas about independence, self-reliance, or self-importance often are enough to create resistance or complete inertia? If so, how do we move through it?

Let’s try an experiment. Think of the top five partners (other nonprofits, private business, individuals, foundation or government funders, volunteers, etc.) that make your mission work. Truly consider who drives your economic engine to make your overall mission and programs excellent, and who keeps you focused on what matters the most. I know – for some of you it may be hard to compile five. That’s okay. You might try this approach: Who complements or supplements your human capacity? Who helps you raise or save money? Okay, got it? Great.

Now, look at this list and ask yourself about the status of those relationships. Is your organization taking any of them for granted? Are all of those relationships mutually beneficial or just good for one of you?  Have you thanked them or only complained about them in the last quarter? Now consider your role in that relationship. Is your board involved where it’s appropriate? How about staff? Who is the right person to nurture and steward each relationship? Is your partner hearing from that person?

These are likely not new questions. At Foraker we pose them to board and staff members every chance we get. By doing that, we’re able to make collaboration a group effort – something that everyone shares, not just one or two people. A role exists for both board and staff in this work, and it starts at home. Ideally this topic is an agenda item at meetings, presenting the opportunity, especially during planning sessions, for deeper thinking about successfully serving our community. If collaboration is more than just a good idea, we have to start with our own internal conversations and actions. Because, as we do know, the challenge isn’t “them” – it’s us.

Two more versions of competition and scarcity center on charitable giving and government grants. We’re all familiar with one of them. It sounds like: “there are so many nonprofits and so few donors that we must compete with all other nonprofits to be sure we get enough support.” I know it would take far more than this article to convince some of you that this assumption is a myth. Both the science of fund development has demonstrated that people express their support for worthy causes in many ways, often through time and charitable gifts to more than one organization. It’s the cause they really care about, and they will support organizations (often more than one) that can show how they successfully address a cause. Your challenge, then, is to let them know how you are doing this.

The best way is to focus on the relationship and not on the money and to create and share compelling stories. Reach out. Engage your donors or potential donors with stories about the benefits you bring to your community and – most importantly – show donors where they fit and what their support means for your mission. If we bring donors into our story and tell it withinstead of to them, we increase the likelihood that they will share their story of commitment in return. Consequently, our ability to engage with donors has everything to do with our own organizational mindset and efforts and nothing to do with “all the other organizations.”

Now let’s look at an alternative version of competition for funding, one that isn’t discussed as much. To understand this scenario, in which a single organization competes internally for funds, it might help to visualize a giant Sitka spruce tree. This magnificent tree has a tremendous trunk and big bows of greenery. The challenge in too many organizations is that each of the limbs represents a different grant funded program. Some programs are strong, well-funded, and get all the sunlight, while others – still strongly mission driven – receive less funding, operate at a loss, and may be lost in the shade. Too often I hear from nonprofit leaders that excess revenue from one program cannot support the other. This is not about grant guidelines or restrictions, it’s about internal competition. In essence, the limbs of the tree have completely forgotten that they are connected to the trunk called mission. There is only one organization and it is the whole tree. But often, because of the way funds are distributed, along with leadership perceptions and institutional history, the tree trunk is lost. As a result, competition surfaces and the organization is unable to connect all the limbs to the trunk or to mount a cohesive effort to achieve mission. Unfortunately, too many of our organizations operate this way.

The goal of abundance is a long road that includes rebuilding team trust, reframing organization-wide success, reframing the budget, and creating the organization story to reflect how programs work together to serve the community through a common purpose and set of values. The resistance to this work is often blamed on the donor or funder, but I don’t accept that premise. Rarely do donors or funders hear how a particular program “limb” is connected to the whole tree to achieve mission. This is the challenge for board and staff. Engage donors and help them make that connection.

Beyond these institutional expressions of competition and scarcity, the hardest shift we may need to make as nonprofit leaders is changing our own personal frame of mind. How do we really feel? Do we embrace abundance or still act from the fear of scarcity? In my experience, shifting to an abundance mindset first requires the effort to emotionally understand that asking for support and working with others is not a sign of weakness or a signal of not being enough on one’s own, rather it’s a sign of true leadership and strength. For example, consider the leaders you know. Do you think more or less of them when you see them working with others? Do you think they are weaker than leaders who go it alone? I rarely think of their efforts to partner as anything less than a generosity of spirit. They aren’t showing me that they aren’t enough, but instead they are demonstrating that they are grounded and that partnering is the next logical step. This is hard work, indeed, and hear me clearly, I don’t know anyone, including myself, who has figured this out all of the time. It is a journey that starts with one’s self.

While there are many ways in which scarcity breeds competition, figuring out how we truly work together is what will lead us to success in our personal, professional, and mission goals.

If you are struggling to move to abundance and collaboration perhaps one or more of these steps will help you move forward:

  1. Gain clarity on the core purpose and values of your organization – not what you do but why you do it.
  2. Be willing to look beyond your organization’s structure and ask a bigger question about the whole system. Then ask yourself and others what is important and what does success look like;
  3. Watch, listen and reflect on how mission impact really works on a day-to-day basis (I am betting you aren’t doing it alone).
  4. Ask yourself what we could do better together.
  5. Understand your strengths and what your organization brings to a collaborative relationship.
  6. Find others who complement your strengthens and can help meet your challenges.
  7. Crunch the numbers in your budget and look for cost savings from working with others or restructure your budget to focus on the “trunk” not just the “limbs.”
  8. Watch the behavior of people you admire – study how they work well with others.
  9. Take a moment once a day, once a week, once a quarter, to extend your gratitude to the partners that make your mission work and to the partners you want to connect with in the future.
  10. Focus on the overall mission not just the individual programs when making decisions.
  11. Talk to program funders about the whole system.
  12. Work with others to change the funding paradigm from competition to collaboration.
  13. Know your story and create the space to listen to others.

We can all work better together. We can all ask better questions about the way things work. We can all be brave enough to take a next step and not wait for someone or something else to “make us change.” Let’s commit to spending less time blaming others for why our work is so difficult and more time finding ways to work together to build and strengthen our communities. What is your next abundant step?