Who’s Your Competition?

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Traditionally, it wasn't the norm to think in business terms about your nonprofit but it’s a useful exercise because it sharpens your thinking about what you do and how you do it. One element of this kind of thinking is to consider competition—what other agencies or groups or community organizations are working on the same issues, addressing the same problems? This can be an uncomfortable question but what you learn can be valuable in program planning and in submitting proposals.


Competition comes in many forms. There might be other nonprofits in town working on the same or similar objectives, seeking the same outcomes. You’re competing for a foundation’s grant—you and the others have researched the XYZ Foundation and you each want the grant for that target population.


You might consider reaching out to your “competition” to see if you can create a collaboration. Funders love nothing more than true collaboration because it increases impact and reduces wasteful redundancy. This isn’t necessarily easy—egos and territorial urges can get in the way. But when it works, it’s good for everyone. And it never happens until someone takes the first step.


There are other kinds of competition you might consider. There might be for-profit companies selling services to the same population you want to engage (e.g. you run a tutoring program, so do Sylvan and Kumon and many others). Can you learn from what they’re doing to make your organization even more effective?


You might have a program that reaches at-risk kids after school but you’re not the only afterschool activity in town. Free time means video games, part-time work, pick-up basketball games, babysitting for little siblings, all kinds of things that compete for a kid’s attention and participation. Or perhaps you’re a small theatre company in a big city. Your revenue comes from the box office. But big cities offer all kinds of other ways to buy entertainment, including from other theatre companies. Perhaps you’re a liberal arts college in New York—students have 34 of them to choose from.


Competition comes in political terms, too. For example, your food bank wants to grow its services and its capacity to feed hungry people, others in town want to prevent hunger by “teaching them to fish.”


All of these possibilities beg the question: what can you do, should you do, about competition? Perhaps the most important thing NOT to do is ignore it. Thoughtful nonprofit management and requests for support need to embrace a candid recognition of what else, who else, is out there addressing the same (or similar) objectives. Once you identify these factors, you can go to work identifying opportunities for collaboration and emphasizing the ways your program makes its unique contribution. It’s important to avoid the mistake of thinking it’s “obvious” why you should be supported. The space for attention and the funding for organizations are both full—of competitors.


Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center
and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.

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