People don’t like to talk about competition in the nonprofit world.
Competition suggests a dog-eat-dog fight to the finish where one valuable nonprofit edges another out of the marketplace. Instead, it’s more comfortable to suppose that do-gooders work together to collaboratively accomplish shared goals. Typically this line of thinking leads nonprofit leaders to avoid thinking about market competition.
When an organization is clear about who it is, what it stands for, and what makes it different from other similar organizations, that organization is in a better position to raise more money, attract more committed supporters, and, surprisingly, to collaborate more effectively with other organizations for the benefit of everyone.
I say surprisingly because the organization that has clearly defined its competitive landscape and has positioned itself as different (or better) than others around it seems to be adopting the cutthroat culture I mentioned above. Yet, an organization that has taken the time to clearly unearth what makes it special also knows what it brings to the table. Clearly differentiated organizations are in a better position to collaborate because they don’t try to do everything — they focus on what they themselves do best and then help their partners shine as well.
Consider the opposite: The Unclear Organization. The Unclear Organization hasn’t clearly identified what makes it unique. This organization understands its general purpose, but doesn’t know what makes it truly special. As a result, this organization is likely to be continuously expanding its service offerings as it chases after various funding opportunities. It tries to be everything to everybody. Its mission becomes diluted and weak; staff no longer see the shared purpose that connects all of the various services and they retreat into fiefdoms within the organization.
The Unclear Organization also becomes a lousy partner in collaborations. Because it does a little of everything, the organization isn’t clear about what it brings to the table. Thus it overreaches, taking away opportunities for others to contribute.
Being honest about competition, identifying your competitors, and articulating what makes you different shouldn’t be seen as an aggressive or hostile tactic. Indeed, it may be the thing that helps your organization become the best possible partner.