Staying Mission First: Why Zero-Sum Thinking Doesn't Work in Social Impact

One of the most startling aspects of the not-for-profit ecosystem is the fierce competition that exists between organizations. Who will get the donor funding? Are we protecting our sponsor list from prying eyes? Is our brand getting prime placement in the brochure? What's our market share for serving the community?

This type of zero-sum thinking is the status quo in the capitalistic, for-profit markets. After all, a dollar of profit for one shoe company is a dollar of profit not made at another shoe company. But should that type of organizational competition exist in the nonprofit space? What does it even mean to "win" as a impact-driven organization?

In an ideal world, a nonprofit is governed by one word - it's mission. They're constantly asking the question, "what's going to have the greatest impact for our chosen cause?" With this mindset, it shouldn't matter which organization is actually accomplishing the mission, whether that is you or another nonprofit. The only thing that matters is that the mission is accomplished. 

Why the Scarcity Mindset Sets In

In communities where donor dollars are scarce, operating costs are high, and organizations are having to raise new money every year just to keep the doors open, the message of "Mission First" gets lost. Instead it becomes about survival first. Collaboration goes out the window; resource sharing goes out the window; and Mission becomes a distant second to a scarcity mindset that pushes revenue to the top of the priority list.

So what should organizations do? If another organization can accomplish 10% more Mission success with the same resources, should they just shut their doors and transfer their donors over? Maybe. But maybe not.

The answer lies in collaboration, discussion, discovery and joint decision making. I have been in countless boardrooms and committee meetings where collaboration is off the table because of perceived competition or conflicts. When those terms are used as they relate between nonprofits, it's an immediate red flag that Mission is not being prioritized.

A Call For Conscious Collaboration

Organizations need to be thinking about all resources as collective tools to solve community issues and the real yardstick should be impact. Getting together and sharing tools, ideas and resources is the only way to develop a ecosystem-wide approach that is optimized and powered to tackle our communities toughest problems. This is the exact mission behind our work at The Center for Social Innovation and Relay Coworking - bringing nonprofits and social ventures together to tackle challenges together.

It's not easy and the scarcity mindset is tough to tame. If we're going to be successful though, it has to be faced head-on if our nonprofits are to grow and stay true to a Mission First mindset. 

Get out of your bubble. Attend nonprofit community events that lift all boats. Join inter-organization committees and groups. Network. Work in the same space as other organizations. Compete on impact, not on donors and resources.

Dan Graham