Cause Competitiveness: Keep Your Eye On The Prize

Who's Getting Off First?

by Estrella Rosenberg & Geoff Livingston

If the last two marathon weeks of cause-related conferences are any indication, competition isn’t just something the for profit sector is thinking about – the cause community is too. How do we compete for market share? How do we compete for visibility? How do we compete for more money? Much has been said about competitiveness in the for profit sector, but what is the right role of competition in causes? Is there a right role?

Some would have full on competition, while others would have singular causes or coalitions within each sector. Are either of these right? They both are in a way. Competitive spirit definitely has its place: Finding the fastest, most efficient, most impactful way to resolve the problem the cause addresses.

Non-profits are not in business to make money. They are a business to be sure, but unlike a for-profit, which seeks to dominate markets and yield profits, a cause or social enterprise seeks to provide a solution. When a for-profit business is successful, it keeps its doors open for years and expands and keeps looking for more market share. When a non-profit is successful it should close its doors because its business – or mission – has been completed.

Are you competing just to raise the most money? Competing in the sense that a cause seeks to beat out its competition helps no one. It actually hurts the cause space by creating distractions and wasted resources.

Consider Komen for the Cure’s use of $1 million spent to legally enforce its rights to term “for the Cure.” How does that help anyone resolve health or larger issues? Worse, last year during The Cause Marketing Forum, Komen for the Cure proclaimed that it was their mission to reclaim the pink ribbon from other non-profits in the breast cancer space – organizations that they themselves support with grants! Imagine if that money and energy went towards finding the most innovative way to discover the most impactful solutions in breast cancer?

Competing to be the first to the finish line with the same approach as ten other organizations in your cause space isn’t the right kind of competition either. Wealthy founders and well meaning activists who think they can do it better without any unique theory of change are creating distractions too and just making more choices for donors, often paralyzing them. Yet another voice with nothing new to add creates a longer path to the answer.

The ability to see the problem and a unique answer to it (or a part of it) is at the heart of social entrepreneurship. Innovation means finding better faster ways to provide answers. In essence, this is the Ashoka model of social entrepreneurship where a changemaker seizes on a unique approach to a problem and deploys ambitious actions for wide-scale change.

For these social entrepreneurs, and for forward thinking non-profits, competition means cooperating with other organizations within the same space when they have to because they have their eye on the prize: an answer to whatever problem they’re trying to solve. That doesn’t necessarily mean sharing resources, but it does acknowledge that everyone is trying to reach the same end goal. Forming coalitions and cause verticals can have great impact if each organization is working on their own piece of the puzzle.

Ultimately, causes should want to end their business by resolving their problem. They shouldn’t want to be the organization who uses social media the most cleverly. They shouldn’t want to be the organization that raised the most money at their annual event. They should want to shutter their doors. Period.

What kind of cause are you? Are you competing to make change or just competing?


  • My sister has been in Non-Profit her whole career. This is a big issue. I have a unique view from a CEO/For Profit standpoint. I think overhead kills Causes. The more organizations on the same cause the more overhead at the top.

    I actually blogged last year Slamming the Yoplait Pink Lid Campaign. That many people save them and don’t mail them back. The postage cost is massive waste in paper, fuel etc. Then Yoplait pays someone to collect the lids and process them. Why not write a check? or have people enter a code online? Is it because Yoplait doesn’t want to max out their donation? I had someone attack me on the post because they said a lot of money was donated. But was it maxed out?

    Then lets look at Social Media. Because of competition they still have to call people, send mailers etc. It did not change anything. I was a heavy donator in the past when I made a lot more money to health and green causes. This topic here is very important because it is hard to galvanize people and stay in their face. And if you get $20 a year to ensure you don’t lose that to someone else.

    But I do believe that competition should ensure best use of funds. Problem is how do we know if say Greenpeace or Earth Justice does a better job with similar missions? Isn’t all their marketing materials often propaganda vs a true weighing vs the competition?

    • I am not so sure I agree with that, Howie. Nonprofits have less overhead than most companies. They are often cash strapped and fighting to make each dollar work. They pay their people less and make them work harder.

      I’ also disagree on social media not making a difference for causes. For those who have deployed it well — the Charity Waters, the Humane societies, the LIVESTRONGS, the Miriam Kitchens, the Invisible People’s — it has given them a platform to differentiate and excel. Using media to better connect and inform people and to galvanize them seems like a no brainer.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Hi Geoff

        My point on overhead wasn’t comparing a single org to a for profit org. I meant if we have 10 groups all doing the same thing we have 10 replications of upper management.

        Point taken on the examples you used. But they also have heavy non-social marketing and exposure too don’t you think?


        • Thanks for adding your comments to our post, Howie.

          I agree with Geoff that social media, when used correctly, can really cut fundraising overhead and lead to repeat donors who feel personally invested in the work of the cause.

          My organization – Big Love Little Hearts – (big-love dot org) has very little non-social media marketing outside of occasional fundraisers where we’re based. Email campaigns, facebook, twitter and location based services have allowed us to save more than 300 lives in less than 2 years. We raised $25,000 in 24 hours during our #100X100 campaign, which took about 36 hours of work on my part and 4 hours of volunteer time for 12 people.

          You’re right that if we have 10 organizations doing the same thing, then the sum total of their overheads would be better spent at one organization doing things in the best, most impactful way. I think that’s what both Geoff and I were saying in the post.

          Thanks again for commenting!

  • Competition is healthy when it is driving innovation and social change. But competition (rather than say collaboration) can be counter productive when there are limited resources to go around.

    Competition can also be unhelpful when it overshadows the cause itself. The drive to gain followers, donations and media attention should be by-products of the work completed or social change created – not ends in and of themselves.

    The longevity of a nonprofit is not necessarily a measure for success. In fact a strong financial and moral argument could be made for shutting down a nonprofit once it has achieved it’s aim.

    I recently blogged about the idea of creating a bucket list for nonprofits asking the question: would the knowledge that your nonprofit might only be around for 5 or 10 years change the culture or strategic direction of your organization?

    • I guess when I hear it can be counter productive when there are limited resources I feel like some nonprofits should go away. Like if they aren’t going to get federal funding, maybe they should go away. Lack of resources may indicative of a lack of effectiveness as much as a lack of society caring.

      I wouldn’t be so quick to judge more causes with worthy theories of change as being detrimental. They supplant older brothers and sisters who don’t have the chops. That’s a good competitive spirit.

      • Nonprofit are not (and should not) be immortal. With so many NGOs out there I think we are getting to a point of humanitarian Darwainism. My hope is that nonprofits with comprehensive strategies and ultimately doing strong work will rise to the top – but this is not always the case. Sadly passion and commitment are not euphemisms for effectiveness. Maybe there needs to be more stringent benchmarks for starting nonprofits.

        • I’d have to agree with you. We are increasingly seeing popularity trump good business sense. One hopes that changes.

        • I’d have to agree with you. We are increasingly seeing popularity trump good business sense. One hopes that changes.

  • Geoff,

    I’ve been there too often, seeing nonprofits forget that competition doesn’t mean competing for funds as much as it means continually striving to innovate a better way to meet the need. In that regard, you and Estrella nail it.

    When the primary concern becomes protecting the upper salaries or infrastructure and not protecting the end benefactors, then there isn’t much point to keeping the doors open. Nobody ought to enter the nonprofit sector to create a career or make a larger salary with less accountability than the private sector.

    Keeping the eye on the prize is the primary focus, indeed.

    Good stuff. It’s how I make contribution decisions today.


  • A great topic. I am feeling a different side of this: working for a for-profit vendor selling technology to non-profits. Can I even justify my existence? There is something very counter-intuitive about competing that way. I am telling myself that as long as we help non-profits raise more money at a lower cost than any non-profit alternatives, I am ok. Sorry for getting off-topic a bit. Your headline on competition just got me going on this moral dilemma. The topic for another blog?

    • We sometimes struggle with this, too, at Zoetica. But if you are helping nonprofits do more, better, faster and more effectively than there is value in your effort.

    • I agree with Geoff. Just like nonprofits need to pay their staff and can’t expect consistent, effective work to be maintained by volunteers who have the competing priority of feeding and housing themselves – the businesses that support their work and help them do it better and faster need to pay their staff.

  • Your analogy reminds me of how we continue to occupy countries with military bases overseas long after the war is over.

    A point that was brought up at #SXSWi, if you’re nonprofit is struggling to fund raise then maybe your cause has “been there done that” and its time to shut the doors. There are so many organizations and causes out there that we tend to eat ourselves and do more damage than good.

    As far as the Komen case, I feel they lost sight on why they exist in the first place — to help find a cure for cancer. Not to make the most money by selling out with their “pink” branding or suing smaller nonprofits. Come on. Give me a break!

    Too much $$$ changes people — even nonprofit organizations.


    Noland Hoshino

    • Spot on, Noland. Yet with Komen, I feel like they have become such an established brand that there is no turning back. It’s as if momentum has superseded reality. I wonder if they will ever be gone. One can only hope.

    • “if you’re nonprofit is struggling to fund raise then maybe your cause has “been there done that” and its time to shut the doors.”

      Great point, Noland! I really agree – it’s detrimental to the organizations that are doing the best work to be surrounded by hundreds of smaller, identical organizations adding nothing new to the mix.

  • Thanks for a good post, Estrella and Geoff! The Komen story exemplifies our culture in the US well; I wonder, where would our cause work be without lawyers and egos?

    Completely agree on the need for a unique theory of change. The old ways are too old. We shaped Solar The Sign’s core competency to enhance the work of other environmental organizations and connect networks together to accomplish their mission and ours. We knew the other organizations could do better what they do, and we wanted to support their work, rather than compete where we would lose. Competing to compete without providing unique value can be a waste of time and resources.

    Transitioning into social enterprise is crucial as everyone arrives (crowds and organizations) online, creating an environment where it is hard to listen amidst the noise; now we need to provide value in exchange for resources to complete our mission. I’m gently guiding my non-profit clients into creating social enterprises through Academies for Social Entrepreneurship. Too many orgs are relying on county, state and fed money for their support, which is unreliable. Really, the only thing we can rely on is the value we bring to the table.

    Thanks, again,

    • The government $ has been an interesting tool on several levels, from policy to tax code. And in many ways, this infusion has stunted the purpose, so I see the value of social entrepreneurship, and I love how you are approaching your clients to use this tool. I also liked the Solar The Sign’s mission and approach. Thank you for sharing these!

  • The Komen lawsuits are a classic example of an organization losing sight of its mission. Any competition that does that is bad for the nonprofit and for the sector. Competition should focus on bettering people’s lives and, as you say, eventually being unneeded. Until then, mission above all and check your ego at the door.

    • Well said, Geri. I enjoyed your Komen post a month or so ago, too. Got me thinking on this vein.. I should embed a link.

    • Right on, Geri. There’s no room for megalomania in social change. What’s best for the cause has to be the first thing on your mind – not what’s best for you or your name!

  • Thanks for post. It’s really interesting.

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