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Looking Beyond Charity Competition

September 12, 2005

This is the fourth article in a six-part series regarding nonprofits and branding.

(Sept. 12, 2005) I recently had a conversation with the executive director of an organization devoted to helping children cope with grief. She told me of a discussion she had with her counterpart in the city's largest child welfare organization to suggest ways they might be able to coordinate their services to children and families. Instead of a lunch date, she got an unexpected response, 'Even though you provide services that are complementary to ours, it'd be better for us if you didn't exist. There's not enough money to go around.'

There was no further contact. No cooperation. And, at the end of the day, a little less hope for kids in their region.

It's an extreme example, but indicative of a trend that seems to recur every time there's an economic downturn, a shift in national priorities or a change in the general public's interests.

We are, like it or not, forced to compete.

On one hand, there's something to be gained from a little competitive spirit. It can cause us to hone our messages, review our service models and even invest a little more in outreach--all of which can benefit the constituents and causes we serve.

Too often, however, the manner of our competition against other similarly motivated agencies and nonprofits winds up ultimately hurting our mission. Competition dissuades us from cooperation and thinking dimensionally about how to help our constituents or causes. In the best case it forces us to imply that similar organizations aren't as worthy as ours. In the worst case it can drive us to unnaturally 'fracture' our service offering so that we are clearly distinguishable from others in the same field.

That fracturing is one of the reasons there are more than 1 million 501(c)(3) organizations registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), all providing prospective donors with an insurmountable number of choices and virtually guaranteeing that we'll have to fight ever more aggressively for an ever shrinking pool of resources.

Rethinking the Donor Pool

Rising above the ethical, logistical and resource-draining quagmire of competing against like-minded nonprofits requires framing the world a little bit differently than we have in the past.

Nonprofits have a tendency to target the most obvious constituents. AIDS service organizations and breast cancer groups focus on people who have had a personal experience or connection to the disease. Groups working to promote Middle Eastern peace will have an inordinate amount of Jewish and Arab-Americans on their fundraising rosters. It all makes perfect sense.

But this kind of one-or-two-degrees of separation approach--where you identify your issue and audience so narrowly that only a limited number of people will support your cause--is inherently flawed. If your core strategy relies on the most obvious prospects, then you are, by definition, accepting that there is a finite slice of pie that must be fought over.

We've given up too soon and too easily on the rest of the world.

Your Brand Leads to a New Constituency

There are plenty of people who, while they might not have personal experience or understanding of our issue, may very well indeed share the philosophy or belief system or worldview that underpins why we do what we do.

A more dimensional understanding of our brand can help people see us in that context--personal experience with our cause or not. It's how an AIDS service organization can get as much money from people who admire their model for delivery of social services as they can from those with personal experience with the disease. It's why some public health organizations have been able to open up new sources of funds from those interested in women's rights, or social justice.

There's proof this can work.

The Humane Society of Seattle and King County is pretty easily grouped, in people's minds at least, with any number of 'animal oriented' organizations, from PETA to PAWS to the World Wildlife Fund. For the past several decades these nonprofits have been competing against each other for share of mind from a very small portion of the population that considers itself animal fanatics.

It's no surprise that funds for these organizations, especially in a post-September 11 world, have not been growing. The best hope any animal welfare organization has of getting more money these days is to literally take it from other organizations in the category.

The Humane Society had been struggling to do just that for years with diminishing effect, until it reframed its argument in a way that appealed to a much larger constituency. The brand insight that led the organization to a whole new base of support was rooted in the simple realization that roughly 60 percent of all U.S. households own pets.

The reason so many of us have pets in our lives is obvious: we greatly value the companionship. By reframing its discussion around that profound concept, the Humane Society transcended its 'typical' base of support and opened up a new era in fundraising.

Why should the ordinary individual, not the one personally committed to your cause, care about your organization? Answer that question and you are well on your way to defining and establishing your brand.

Bill Toliver is executive director of The Matale Line, a company devoted to helping nonprofits with communications and fundraising. Visit them on the web at, or write Bill directly at

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