I recently kicked off a new client project for a nonprofit organization, which includes interviewing a number of comparable organizations. When I asked my client what other organizations they suggested I speak with, they gave me a long list – as well as a description of what those comparable organizations do. They are all extremely similar –with some small nuances to distinguish themselves from one another. One comparable organization focuses on serving people in one particular county. Another comparable organization focuses on youth between the ages of 12 and 16, and another focuses on youth between the ages of 18 and 22. One is only open on the weekends; another raises money to support its partners. The list went on and on. All I could keep thinking was, “This is such a waste of resources.”
There are simply too many nonprofits in the U.S. We’ve all heard this before, so it’s not a surprise. Most are founded with the very best of intentions. However, as David Callahan pointed out in his article, “There Are Way Too Many Nonprofits. What Are Funders Going to Do About It?”, each nonprofit requires a certain amount of infrastructure, and thus, resources to support its work. Callahan challenges funders to support a handful of organizations that can truly make an impact, rather than haphazardly scatter dollars across the nonprofit sector. That is a good start, but it’s not enough. We all have a role to play.
During the course of any given year, I’m asked to speak with several people who are interested in starting a nonprofit (or a foundation to support other nonprofits). My first question is, “Isn’t there someone else already doing that? If it’s not the same exact idea, can’t you explore how you might be able to partner together?” Admittedly, this reaction doesn’t always go over very well. But I’m not a “yes” person, so I won’t tell my audience what they want to hear. I’ll tell them what they need to hear. I’ll “push” their thinking, present other options, and encourage them to consider a different approach. It helps when funders focus their giving. But it also helps when corporations – which are known to thrive in competitive environments – gently question the differences between nonprofits, and suggest ways that comparable organizations can work together rather than compete for resources. And if we all start asking these questions, over time we will have a stronger sector.
I say all of this as someone who has been guilty of doing what I am suggesting that we avoid. In my early 20’s, I founded and launched a nonprofit organization. Now I look back at the energy that I expended getting that organization off the ground, and I cringe. Yes – we did a lot of good work and I remain very proud of our accomplishments. But the world did not need another nonprofit, despite my very valid intentions.