Sunday, August 03, 2008

What About That Other Nonprofit, In Town, That's Similar To Us?

Often, it's the case, that no matter what cause your nonprofit is serving, there will be another nonprofit, not too far away, who does similar work as yours'. What about that?

Let's say that you and I work for a nonprofit that is working to protect ten specific species of start fish and those ten species happen to live in the ocean twenty miles from our office. Let's say, too, that Save Northeastern American Starfish, where we work, is a local nonprofit. It was started here, has had its office here, and serves the local starfish community. Our mission is to educate the local community about what it can do to retain our ten local starfish species, now and forever; by avoiding certain household products that harm our local marine life; and what can be done to help them thrive.

Let's say, too, that thirty minutes, across town, there's another nonprofit who also works to preserve star fish. They are Save America's Starfish; a regional or local office of the national nonprofit organization. While they are working to preserve the same ten species as our organization, they are not so singularly focused or 'locally' focused. Save America's Starfish works to preserve all species of starfish that live in or near the United States including Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Alaska. This includes the local starfish, of course, but their scope is vast compared to ours'. Their mission statement makes it clear that they are preserving all starfish populations in and outside of North America and are focused on preserving and cleaning their habitats.

You and I are familiar with our nearby colleagues' work. Their national campaigns are well funded, effective, and the organization's reputation is excellent.

So...how do you and I feel about them, their work, their proximity, and how does their existence so near to ours' effect our organization and its work?

If you read Seeking Grant Money Today with some regularity, you may know that I am a proponent of mission statements. Some people are not. I know. The reason why I believe they're important is that when a start up nonprofit is forming, or an organization who is rethinking itself, or modernizing its work needs to clarify, solidify, and pinpoint its reason for existence (e.g. the work it will do to serve the cause that it is about to); the process of developing a mission statement (and it's a long exercise) is extremely valuable. It should be done among the organization's leadership. It forces discussion, allows people to ruminate on ideas, wording, goals, the actual work that will be done, etc. Creating a mission statement is an opportunity for the group of people running an organization to clarify and solidify what the organization will do and achieve.

If two similar nonprofits (or more) exist in a single community, chances are that while they may work on the same cause (or issue), they are likely working on different aspects of the issue, or doing similar work for different populations effected by the cause, etc. The key in similar organization being near oneanother are their differences. For instance, the nonprofit that you and I works for is preserving starfish, like our neighbors, the national organization; but we are solely focused on preserving our region's local starfish. The national organization is working to preserve them, as well, but are also working to preserve all other species in our hemisphere. We are similar but different nonprofits. More to the point; if our nonprofit is thirty years old, and theirs' is twenty-five years old; it's important to note that since both nonprofits have been successful and still exist (and are being supported by our communities), then we are each doing our respective mission statements' work and conducting internal organizational operations in ways that the donors and volunteers perceive as necessary, current, and successful. Our organization and theirs' is meeting a real need and doing each of our respective work well.

Which nonprofits survive over time and who does not is determined, ultimately, by how necessary the work is that the nonprofit is doing; and how effective and transparent the nonprofit's operations are. If the community no longer sees a need for a nonprofit that educated the public about the dangers of not pasteurizing milk, for safety reasons - it is likely because pasteurization is a norm, today, and standard. The issue is now mute. Donations will decline, there will be fewer volunteers, etc. Similarly, if a nonprofit serves people suffering from a particularly aggressive form of cancer, but does not provide an annual operating report to its donors (even when requested); or it spends only 20% of every dollar raised on its programs and work; it will become suspect and ultimately, donors and volunteers will either find other organizations doing similar work to donate to that are run better, or may stop giving to the cause altogether.

To get back to my question, 'how do you and I feel about the nearby noprofit working on a similar cause, their work, their proximity, and how does their existence so near to ours' effect our organization and its work?'...

We may feel competitive with their being similar and so nearby. We may be a bit intimidated by their being a national affiliate as they have larger budgets to spend on everything, and probably have established relationships with major sponsors, foundations, and other donors. We may even be a tad jealous. This is all pretty normal in day to day business - no matter who the colleague may be or work for. The important part of our considering our colleagues is that we must realize who we are, our strengths, what our organization does, and what it has. They're a good organization but so are we. There are benefits to being local. Our local donor base is larger than their local office's is, in our town, because while all of our donors care about starfish, the local folks are concerned for the local species. This isn't' to say that our two organizations don't share some of these donors. Without a doubt we do. My point is that we are local and all of the dollars that we raise stay in our community, here. This is a great point to make to potential donors. It makes our organization distinct in serving the hometown. Some of the local money the national organizaton raises goes to a national market. We know the local business owners, local foundations' leaders, we have a wonderful board mostly made of local folks, and we have strong name and brand recognition within a 100 mile radius. They also have name recognition, but we have learned (via a study) that people 50 miles away from town, or more, do not know that their national organization even has a local office in town. We are very successful at our work (e.g. we set goals for new programs and meet, on average, about 85% of those goals). We are achieving our mission statement's work and its goal. We are transparent and are proud of this excellent internal operating standard and share with potential and current donors that $0.85 of every $1.00 raised goes to programs to save local starfish. We have annual independent professional audits conducted and have passed every one with flying colors. Etc. Their organization is great AND our organization is great.

Just because someone who works on the same cause is nearby, does not mean anything is wrong with our organization or theirs'.

They are working to preserve the starfish communities' environments across the North American hemisphere. We are working to educate the local community how to preserve our ten local species and what can be done locally, to do so. While we both serve starfish, these are two distinct and different mission statements and thereby two distinct nonprofits. Our nonprofit is working to educate the public. Their nonprofit is working to preserve starfish habitats or save the threatened habitats. Their work involves locating and watching starfish populations across the entire hemisphere. Our work involves locating and monitoring local starfish and educating the local public how to preserve and protect them. The two organizations work to protect starfish and each surveys and monitors the species that they serve; but they do not overlap in any other (major) way. This is critical for our nonprofit and theirs' to realize. Our two organizations' work compliments one another, in fact. This is a possible strategic strength.

The differences between us affirm that we each have plenty of work to do and that we are serving different jobs in the community (whether local or national). The differences also demonstrate that we'll don't really compete directly, when each organization fundraises. How is this so? Let's say that both nonprofits send a local woman, Sheila Reilly, a letter requesting a donation in the same week. As long as we do our job and state what we do, what our current programs are, what we have achieved this year, and why we need the money (perhaps for a new education facility including tanks that children can pick up and put down some local species of starfish) and we make the case why this new program is important; we will have made the case for our organization and need. If the other nonprofit requests a donation of Ms. Reilly for a new research project that will remedy a disease that is effecting all starfish across the North American hemisphere; Ms. Reilly could easily donate in response to each request. She may feel strongly that local children who grow up to appreciate their regional starfish will protect them, tomorrow. She may also feel strongly that without knowing how to remedy a disease that is impacting local and all starfish in our part of the planet - we can not hope for future generations to see and enjoy starfish. For more discussion about whether nonprofits compete for donors' dollars read, "Upping the Odds In Getting Any Grant Or Do We Compete..."

The leadership at our nonprofit and the leadership at the other nonprofit would be wise to be confident in their respective organizations, each organization's reputation and capabilities, and think strategically TOGETHER. If the leadership at our two nonprofits truly care about starfish, then they must see that our work compliments one another to the benefit of starfish; the goal!

Many funders, today, (including grant donors, in particular) like to see nonprofits collaborate. Why? It lessens the likelihood that nonprofits will redo each other's work. More progress to the end goal can be made, and quicker. It also increases the likelihood for success for each organization because each will have access to the other's knowledge, experience, and that is often a bit different organization to organization. Collaboration strengthens the likely outcomes for any goal.

It is very common, today, for two nonprofits working on the same cause (or more) to fundraise together, too. If our two nonprofits design a new program together (perhaps a public outreach education campaign) that will benefit both local and national starfish we can approach foundations for grants for the program; and send letters locally and nationally to established donors and sponsors. The key is to know and explain the two nonprofits' strengthens, the differences (which is important because more is being served than what just one nonprofit could do), and the opportunity collaboration presents (more could be done). Perhaps the program is what is called a model program; one that has never been done before but could be replicated by other nonprofits doing similar work. Donors love model programs.

I am of the mind that besides mission statements, collaborations between nonprofits are good, positive, powerful, and modern strengths. I have never seen any good example demonstrating nonprofit collaboration as bad. As long as each organization is clear about what it does and its strengths, is a professional, well run, transparent, and successful organization - their cause could be well served. The community could be strengthened. The potential is there.

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