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Monday, January 22, 2018

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An Alternative Paradigm for Nonprofits, Pt. V: The Challenge is Competition
Steve Barnhill

May, 2009

Not long before my partner and I decided to devote Edge Creative to serving altruistic organizations, I learned that Houston was home to 10,000 nonprofits. Ten thousand!

            I naturally thought, “What a rich palette of colors with which to create a future! How can this not be great?”

            It looked so good. Ten thousand companies, the biggest of them ranking among the largest Houston employers. Businesses in social services. Health care. The arts and education. Nutrition. Housing. Elder care. Research. The environment. Safety. Service to God and to humankind. The quest for sustainable peace.

            If we succeed in helping these organizations prosper, might we not only be fulfilled but also exalted, even elevated to sainthood?

            Then I saw the larger picture: Most nonprofits are underfunded. Understaffed. Untrained in how to best select and use suppliers. Ill-equipped to excel in their quest for resources. And, drum roll please, most believe, whether consciously or not, that we live and work in a world of insufficiency.

            Let’s admit it: That latter mindset often drives our nonprofit operations. Life to us is a zero-sum game in which survival is paramount. Scarcity is the rule.


The Latin root of the verb "to compete" is competere, which translates as "to seek together."


In fact, a more useful belief might be that that ours is a universe of abundance and that the problem we mostly face in nonprofits is competition for resources, not a scarcity of them. That’s an altogether different challenge.

            When faced with a person contending that getting the best people, attracting the most money and creating the brightest future depends on our success against competing forces, I like to counter, “Maybe not.”

            Maybe, just maybe, we can pursue success in concert with other forces, as suggested by that popular axiom, “Focus on Growing the Pie, Not Splitting It.” In other words, let’s transform the zero-sum game into an everybody-wins endeavor.

            Ironically, the etymology of the word “competition” points us in precisely this direction. The Latin root of the verb "to compete" is competere, which translates as "to seek together" or "to strive together." 

            Could this be an option? If so – and we understand competition in this classical way – new possibilities emerge. 


Collaborations and consolidations can benefit everyone, to wit the recent merging of End Hunger Network and Houston Food Bank.


Before we answer the option question, we’re compelled to honestly determine whether our primary goal is, as our missions state, to unselfishly address social needs (altruism) or, as our actions sometimes suggest, to ensure our organization’s survival (Darwinism).

            As for me, I prefer to believe that there’s enough to go around, but that we need to be creative in finding and deploying our resources. In many instances, being smart calls for cooperation, collaboration, or even consolidation. In other words, it might mean that 10,000 nonprofits is too many. That won’t be a breakthrough discovery. Any charitable foundation in town can tell you how the numbers (and redundancies) complicate their work. Collaborations and consolidations can benefit everyone, to wit the recent merging of End Hunger Network and Houston Food Bank.

            On the other hand, if our primary goal is survival as an organization – or just plain staying employed -- then “beating” the competition (and eventually eliminating it) is definitely called for. And this survival-of-the-fittest mentality will definitely result in a decline in the number of Houston-area nonprofits.

            The first of these options arises from the best of our natures, I think, while the second does not. The first is conservative, meaning that it shows appreciation for our resources and their origins, while the second is imprudent and wasteful, an affront to those who sacrifice so that we can do our vital work.  

            The destination is predetermined. The road we take is up to us.


Be sure to read Steve’s previous articles. You may find them at


Steve Barnhill is a principal in Edge Creative Strategies, a marketing communications firm specializing in service to nonprofits.



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