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nonprofit competition

Many times, nonprofit organizations recoil at the idea of competition. “We prefer to think of other organizations as partners, here for the same reason we are,” was how one executive director put it to me. That’s fine. However, the truth of the matter is that partnership and competition are not mutually exclusive. Nonprofit organizations compete with each other for:

  • Talent, paid and volunteer
  • Funding
  • Media attention 
  • Community good will. 

In the for-profit world, you might call out your competition on their performance data, high cost, or poor customer service. In the nonprofit sector that won’t work. We can draw an easy contrast between for- and non-profit competitive differentiation, and that contrast is one of approach not quality or value.

Take, for example, Greenpeace and The Nature Conservancy. Both organizations are focused on saving the planet. However, one takes a more militant approach, and the other a more pragmatic one. Neither is necessarily right or wrong, better or worse. Their differences make it easier for people to decide which organization more authentically aligns with their values.

Here are five tips for differentiating your nonprofit from your competitors (even if they are partners):

  1. Avoid calling them out by name, especially if in the context of results. Bragging that your results are better than another organization’s can come across as petty and disrespectful. For-profit organizations can get away with that because it’s expected.
  2. Show respect for differing approaches without validating them. Demonstrate an appreciation for the work your “partners” do.
  3. Focus on your approach to addressing the problem. Use subjective phrases like “We believe that…,” “Our experience has taught us…” and “We have found that…”
  4. Never get personal. Avoid referencing the leaders of other organizations by name, even if they have had some bad press. Keep it classy, as they say.
  5. Get a sense of people’s perceptions. If you’re a regular reader, you won’t be surprised that I recommend getting data around your competitors, such as how they position themselves as well as how they are perceived. Market research or a messaging audit can provide invaluable insights.

Differentiation in the non-profit sector doesn’t have to be cut-throat, mean-spirited, or a zero-sum game. If anything, clearly differentiating your nonprofit from others is doing a service to your audiences, more so than it is to yourself. By clearly explaining your unique approaches, philosophies, and view of the world, you help would-be supporters align their time, talent, and treasure with their unique personal values and points-of-view.

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