Learning to compete: the nonprofit’s answer to living in a world of silos

Return to main page

The number of entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) is growing exponentially. On the surface this sounds wonderful. But when the space becomes overcrowded, things get messy.

Organizations begin to trip over one another in a race for funding, audience and visibility. They duplicate efforts and often refuse to partner because they fear their resources will be compromised. This creates ill will, wears out funders who receive calls from multiple organizations, and confuses the very audience the ESOs so desperately want to serve — the entrepreneur.

But there is an answer.  Learn to compete. Here’s how I discovered this.

Once upon a time, I ran an ESO. After listening to me talk about a particularly tough situation with another organization in our space (something that happened a lot), my mentor Mario Morino asked me how much time I had spent on this issue. Between trying to find a solution and worrying, it had consumed my entire day. His response? “It looks like you wasted a day you could have used to outpace your competition.” Huh?  Outpace my competition? I ran a nonprofit, not a business. Weren’t we all just supposed to get along?

That’s when I realized this was going to be a very different journey than I had expected. Our team took Mario’s words to heart and learned to compete. This Gary Hamel quote was taped to my wall, and we lived it:

“Business concept innovation starts from a premise that the only way to escape the squeeze of hyper-competition, even temporarily, is to build a business model so unlike what has come before that traditional competitors are left scrambling. Business concept innovation is not a way of positioning against competition, but of going around them. It is based on avoidance, not attack.”  

Here’s what we did:

  1. Determined our niche: We were myopically focused on only the region’s technology community.
  2. Differentiated: We focused on smaller peer-to-peer programs rather than hosting multiple large events.
  3. Listened: We hosted one meeting each month for tech companies and service providers to share pain points. We built the majority of our programs from this feedback.
  4. Innovated: We were intentionally untraditional in nearly everything we did. We hosted wine tastings instead of trade shows, hosted a business plan competition called the Mosh Pit and featured everything from circus performers to John Astin (think Gomez on “The Addams Family”) during our annual fundraiser. And when other organizations duplicated our programs, we innovated or created new adventures.
  5. Executed:  We moved fast. And I mean fast — organizing programs in weeks rather than months.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the key to getting along is learning to compete. Carve out your specific market and resist duplication. Don’t chase money that takes you off mission. Keep innovating on what you do well. Fill in the gaps by partnering with organizations that don’t look like you. And for heaven’s sake, don’t dish on other ESOs — stay positive and cooperate.

When you resist becoming another look-alike silo, funding will come easier and your members will view you as a trusted source. Believe me, it’s a much better way to spend the day than bickering with another organization.

Thanks Mario!  That kick in the butt was just what I needed.

Related Articles

Happiness inside the box: The role quiet time plays in your success

Move over buffalos, there’s a new kid in town

The importance of outside voices in our communities

The entrepreneur whisperer: Tips on engaging growth-company CEOs

Things that go bump in the night



Penny Lewandowski
Senior consultant on external relations
|
A thought leader in entrepreneurship and building an entrepreneurial culture, Penny Lewandowski is senior consultant of external relations at the Edward Lowe Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on new ways to think about economic development – especially how a grow-from-within strategy leads to thriving and sustainable economies.