Sizing Up Your Nonprofit Competition
Some nonprofit executives fear that the nonprofit pie is a zero-sum game. They fear that there is a limited number of charitable dollars available and that they are in nonprofit competition with other organizations for their share of the pie. We tend not to ascribe to this philosophy; our view is that the dollars in the nonprofit universe isn’t fixed and is far from being tapped out. The competition often isn’t another nonprofit. It is that people sometimes do nothing. The key is to engage with donors and constituents in a meaningful way.
Still, one can’t blame nonprofit leaders for feeling like they are in a perpetual horserace, if for no other reason than the sheer number of nonprofits that vie to a greater or lesser extent for charitable contributions.
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the U.S. This number includes public charities, private foundations and other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues. By any measure, that’s a crowd.
What Differs One Nonprofit From Another?
How do donors size up the field? Everyone likes a winner, and it’s only human nature to want to give dollars to organizations that are going to grow and increase in influence and the ability to deliver on their mission. Charity: Water is one example. It’s founder, Scott Harrison, has built a brand in the nonprofit space that rivals that of Apple among for-profits.
In its first six years, Charity: Water raised $74 million from 400,000 people. The organization gave donors a mechanism to become emotionally connected to the outcome of their donation. Donations were tracked to specific projects and donors were updated via the organization’s website on the progress of well projects.
Of course, for every Charity: Water, there are thousands of nonprofits that never make it very far from the founder’s kitchen table. In order to improve the position of our own organizations, it would be great to know what makes our peers (notice we didn’t say “competitors”?) successful. What do we know about why some nonprofits thrive, while others fail?
The research on this important question is sparse. But we can get some clues from recent studies conducted by Dr. Fredrik Andersson at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. His area of expertise is understanding how nonprofits emerge, operate and build capacity.
One of the problems that Andersson identifies in understanding why some nonprofits succeed while others fail is what psychologists call survivorship bias. Survivorship bias refers to our tendency to focus on the winners and try to learn from them, while completely forgetting about the losers who are employing the same strategy.
One example: You see that Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of school and became billionaires. So you conclude that you don’t need school to in order to be successful; entrepreneurs just need to stop wasting time in class and get started.
But of course, it’s possible that Bill Gates succeeded in spite of dropping out and not because of it. And for every Bill Gates there are thousands of other college dropouts who failed. Survivorship bias doesn’t merely mean that a strategy may not work well for you, it also means that we don’t really know if the strategy works well at all.
The bottom line is when the winners are remembered, and the losers are forgotten it becomes very difficult to say if a particular strategy leads to success. Trying to evaluate nonprofits’ success falls prey to the survivorship bias. We often study—and try to emulate—only the Charity: Waters of the world, while we ignore others who failed and why they did.
Nonprofits Need to Think Long-Term
The other tendency that skews our evaluation of nonprofits is the tendency to look at the organization as a snapshot in time, rather than over the long-term. Researchers often fall prey to this approach, for example, relying on surveys of donors who support organizations at a given point in time.
A recent study by Andersson published in the journal, Nonprofit Management & Leadership, explains how creating and nurturing a successful nonprofit is a process. Organizations evolve over time, and taking a snapshot of their success at a given moment (think: ALS Association Ice Bucket Challenge) will result in a very skewed understanding of the reasons for their achievements.
The critical phase to study is rather what happens during the “nascent stage” of a nonprofit. What happens early often shapes the organization, and the effects are long-lasting. Unfortunately, it turns out that this information is often difficult to get to. Founders of nonprofits, like all of us, are often victims of memory distortion, another trick our minds play. Our memories of the past are shaped by what has happened in the meantime, so the stories they tell about the early stages of their organizations may not be particularly accurate.
All this makes it difficult for nonprofit executives to learn from the successes—or failures—of others. The best bet is to get a picture of what’s happened to an organization over the long-term and to try to get the best possible understanding of how the foundation that was laid led to later success or lack thereof.
And it’s very important to understand why organizations fail. Alan Wurtzel, the former CEO of Circuit City, was profiled in Jim Collins’ well-known 2011 book, “Good to Great.” The book talked about the factors that resulted in some companies to go from “good to great.” A more useful book was one that Wurtzel himself wrote about Circuit City in 2016. The title of that book was “Good to Great to Gone.”
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.