I was recently privy to a conversation between nonprofit executives. The two work for a small organization with big ideas that struggles to sustain its outstanding programming for an often neglected segment of the population.
While discussing their newest and most underfunded program, the name of a much larger organization with a similar mission was raised. Immediately following the mention of this “competitor’s” name, they paused and began shaking their heads in unison. The more senior of the two then launched into what felt like a scripted mantra:
“They get all of the donations from abroad, funding that could otherwise come to us. Not to mention that they’re so well known here in Israel. We have the same mission and similar programming but we just can’t compete with a nonprofit that size.”
I was stunned and saddened. Though I often hear nonprofits complain about their inability to “compete” and grumble about the success of other organizations, I am always dismayed by the expression of these sentiments. This mindset causes nonprofits to lose focus, miss out on opportunities, and feeds a “competition narrative” that prevents organizations from learning from each other.
I believe it all stems from misconceptions nonprofit professionals propagate about the funding process. The prevailing perspective is that all nonprofit organization are competing for the “same dollars” and must edge each other out in order to grab a slice of the “limited pie.” There is also a compulsive need to hoard donor information and successful campaigning and programmatic strategies for fear of them being “stolen.”
This pervasive attitude is a death knell to a great number of small nonprofits throughout Israel and the greater Jewish World and poses a serious threat to the health and longevity of the entire third sector.
In order to turn things around, nonprofits must realize that two heads may, in fact, be better than one. Namely, they must begin collaborating, a concept that is very foreign to Israel’s nonprofit sphere. When nonprofit organizations with similar missions and programs set their politics and egos aside and join forces for the greater good, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.
In addition to there being strength in numbers, by working together – for specific projects or across the board – they can make up for each other’s weaknesses, by “shifting the weight” to the organization that is stronger in certain areas. And new pairs of eyes will open new worlds of possibilities for creative problem solving.
Just imagine how it would all play out if instead of competing for funding, similar organizations would pool their resources to maximize efficiency and increase output. The result would be the best possible programs and initiatives, fulfilled and happy employees and volunteers, and donors who are thrilled with the effective use of resources.
Yes, there would be hiccups and challenges along the way, but that’s par for the course with any great endeavor. As long as all those involved are committed to true teamwork and focus is maintained, there is no real downside.
There must, of course, be an understanding from the very beginning regarding who will take the lead, how the expenses will be divided, and how success will be measured. It’s daunting for sure, but it’s entirely doable.
So, why don’t more Israeli nonprofit organizations collaborate?
While there are various explanations – ranging from “my baby” syndrome to copious amounts of red tape to incompatibility of nonprofit work cultures – the most prevalent reason is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, and even fear of success (specifically the precedents that would be set by successful collaboration).
And so those of us who can see the impending collapse of so many worthy nonprofits must do something about it. In order to continue their selfless, life-altering work on behalf of others, Israeli nonprofits need our guidance and support to make that leap and face the unknown.
We must encourage a culture of camaraderie – rather than competition – within the third sector.
We must applaud Israeli nonprofits for their strengths and help them figure out the best possible solutions to address their weaknesses.
And we must make sure that they are fully aware of the tools and opportunities available to them and empower them to move their own organizations and the entire third sector forward.
After all, it is not only for their own good, but for ours as well.
Shoshanna Jaskoll is the co-producer of AMUTA21C (www.amuta21c.com), an annual summit focused on bringing together Israel’s non-profit and business professionals in an effort to create connections, showcase opportunities, and raise operational standards across the third sector.