Playing nice with each other in the non-profit sandbox

Since opening my non-profit consulting practice almost a year ago, the most number of phone calls for assistance relate to starting a new non-profit organization. Just this morning, I saw in LinkedIn’s non-profit discussion group that someone posted a note asking for help with starting a non-profit organization.

Why is it that every time someone has a new idea, they want to start a new non-profit organization to do it?

I find this knee jerk reaction so interesting and confounding. Instead of starting a new organization, it could be “Ah-ha, I have an idea and think I’ll take it to a non-profit organization in my community that does similar things and work with them on starting a new program.”

It has become my standard operating procedure to sit down with these nice, well-intentioned individuals who call me asking for help and beg them to please not start another non-profit organization.

Why? Because every year tons of new non-profit start, and every year tons of other organizations go out of business. It is hard to create, build, and sustain a non-profit organization. Bylaws and incorporation paperwork, board development, staffing, fundraising, donor engagement, program evaluation, outcomes measurement, annual IRS 990 tax filing, and on and on and on.

When I opened my consulting practice, The Healthy Non-Profit, I decided to do business as a LLC. It was a page or two of paperwork, 15 minutes of time, and a small sum of money. Poof! I was a business owner and entrepreneur in no time. I didn’t even have to break a sweat.

I guess all of that time, paperwork and money required to start a non-profit is a result of the preferential tax status Uncle Sam bestows upon you.

The truth of the matter is that the last thing the non-profit sector needs is more struggling non-profit organizations competing for similar resources, which brings me back to my original question.

I suspect part of the problem is that many people want to start a new organization rather than partner and collaborate because existing agencies don’t play nice in the sandbox. Sure, everyone says the right thing about partnering, collaborating, and creating alliances, but our actions say something entirely different.

I don’t think this is malicious behavior. I suspect it is because non-profits are under-resourced and stressed out. The last thing they want to consider is adding a new program and figuring out how to fund it.

Of course, the irony is that this behavior in part contributes to tons of new non-profits being created every year, which places a burden on the sector and adds stress to your under-resourced agency.

I think that non-profits need to learn how to play nice with each other in the sandbox and with others who come with new program ideas.

Has your agency been highly collaborative and entrepreneurial about starting new programs? Please use the comment box to share your story and best practices? Do you disagree with my observations about how little “real” collaboration takes place in the non-profit sector. If so, give it to me by leaving a comment with data illustrating your point.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

About DonorDreams

Erik got his start working in the non-profit field immediately upon graduation with his masters degree in 1994. His non-profit management and fundraising experience numbers nearly 20 years. His teachable point of view around resource development is influenced by the work of Penelope Burk and those professionals subscribing to a "donor centered" paradigm. Donors have dreams and it is our responsibility to be dream-makers because donors are not ATMs.

Posted on July 5, 2012, in nonprofit, organizational development and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I just started blogging two weeks ago, and this is one of the first things I felt I needed to get off my chest as well (relationship-builder or isolationist?). Without going into too many details, I have witnessed some element of not wanting to play too long in the same sandbox as another org over and over. But I know of one org in particular in which the devo person actually openly speaks of others as direct competition for donors and therefore as mortal enemies (and no, I’m not exaggerating). A lot of this stems from the strange idea that donors are pieces of pinata candy —

    I’m loving following your blog, Erik. Thanks!

    • Jen . . . congrats on starting your own blog. I hope you find as much joy in it as I do. This post about Playing Nice in the Non-Profit Sandbox, on which you commented, actually hit a nerve for some people. Specifically, another non-profit consultant with his own blog took exception with my point of view and responded with his own post. You can read it here:

      After reading Ken Goldstein’s post “So You Want to Start a Nonprofit?” I must admit that I agree with some of his points. You may want to click over and read what he has to say.


  2. Hi Erik- Wow! I can see Ken’s point, too. Innovation, fresh ideas, new perspectives — these are all important values in the nonprofit community and should be encouraged, whether it’s in an established org or a brand-new one. I think what struck a nerve for me in your post was the concept of the sandbox. I know that you used the metaphor to encourage those with the new ideas to go talk with an established org. But I love the metaphor to describe the type of collaboration that orgs can and should be practicing between each other. Two orgs that have similar concerns in the same market (such as AIDS care, homelessness, or preschool programs) should be able to work together, talk with each other, collaborate, share information, etc, without fear of “losing donors” to each other. “I’m not getting in the sandbox with him! He might steal my sandwich!”

    I look forward to reading more from you! Cheers from the only corner of the country in which we still haven’t put away our winter coats ~ Jen

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