Playing Nice {On Competition in the NonProfit World}

by Laura on January 11, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 11.20.14 PM

Elementary school was a dream for me until the second grade.

In the second grade, a new girl named Wendy moved to town. She was cute with brown curly hair and she quickly set her sights on my best friend, Sarah.

What ensued over the next 259 days of the school year was not so good for little blonde-haired, love-the-world Laura Leigh (yes, I grew up in the South).

Wendy demanded that Sarah choose between the new and the old best friend. It was a declaration made on the playground, a line in the sand,  beside the literal sandbox– Sarah could not be friends with the both of us.  There were tears by the swings that day and then later party invitations without my name on them. Eventually, Wendy, in the logical wisdom of a seven year old, came up with a plan of altruistic compromise–Sarah could be best friends with me on Tuesdays and Thursdays but would ignore Wendy on those days. However, the alternating days of the week– Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays--I was the one by herself on the playground while Sarah and Wendy giggled and shared secrets.

I guess you could say I learned at a young age that jealously causes wreckage, that competition divides, and that the idea of “not enough” leaves everyone feeling the burden of scarcity.

Fast forward 25 years, and I find myself discouragingly in turf wars again–this time the landscape isn’t the playground, it’s the nonprofit sector.

We began working in the charity world about two years ago, and the longer we’re in it, the more cynicism we have to fight. We’ve had prominent leaders ignore or belittle us in conversation– we, the new kids on the nonprofit block. We’ve seen speakers position themselves and employees defend themselves, seen the ineffective groups market excellently while the real heroes go unsung. And we’ve watched with sadness as turf wars ensue– over donors or ideas or Facebook likes or that next dollar. We’ve seen people hold things tightly to their chests– methods or research or contacts.

You’d think we were in competition or something; I guess it’s a competition to out-good the next guy. 

Honestly, it’s like second grade all over again. We see and battle with a mentality of scarcity that drives ownership instead of open source, mine instead of ours, self-importance over the applause of the greater good. 

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 11.36.41 PM

We have a question that I’ve written before on the whiteboard at our home office and it is simply this, “What would a victim of trafficking want us to do?”

It’s funny how easy it is to forget that simple focus when you are launching and building and raising funds, and then raising some more funds, and then some more. But it’s a question that has to remain central to our thinking at The Exodus Road, and its the type of question that has to remain in focus for any nonprofit attempting to bring light into the world in a particular sphere.

Is it best for a girl trapped in sex slavery for us to share that trusted government contact with another field partner? Yes. Then we should do that.

Is it best for trafficked victims for the Western donor to understand the truth about certain organizations? Yes. Then we should tell them.

Would a sex slave care who rescues them or who gets the credit? No. Then we shouldn’t either.

The focal point must be the people we are serving— those girls behind the locked doors for us at Exodus Road right now. And the moment we start caring more about our brand, our fame, or our job security, is the moment we begin throwing other people and organizations under the bus in an attempt to position ourselves on top. It’s the moment we become like Wendy– competing for attention, marking territories, dividing friends.

And this is a mentality we all must fight tenaciously–both as leaders in the nonprofit sector and as donors or advocates for causes or faith-communities.

There is no scarcity of evil to fight in the world, but there’s also no scarcity of resources or people or passion to bring good, either. 

It’s an awfully big sandbox we find ourselves in. And there are a million different ways to play nicely in it. 


*The second photo is evidence that my own children do not play nicely oftentimes on trips to the grocery store.  But, hey, their excuse is that they are literal children.


  • Dalaina May

    Ugh. That sounds like an incredibly frustrating situation! And so sad! Can’t we “get” that we are all playing on the same team? I love that you are proceeding with caution and trying to be faithful to go back to the foundation of “why.” Keep pressing forward, Laura, stepping right on top of that stupid sandbox line and smudging it to nothing. Who needs it anyway?

    • Laura Parker

      Dalaina, Thanks for your encouragement. YES, we ARE all on the same team. Usually. It is hard though because we have run across orgs that are ineffective or harmful or illegal even, and sometimes our hearts are all on the same team, but methods are not. And thats a tricky one, too.

  • Brooke

    Wow, I had to laugh at the elementary school illustration. I was the new girl in town in 4th grade. The two girls I met were best friends and refused to be my friend for years and did everything they could to make sure no one would befriend me. Ironically today we are all friends!
    Today the competition on the mission field that I find it between us and the national leaders of our organization. They want us around for help in funding but more and more they are rejecting our advice in dealing with matters. They want the physical things here and now, not for the future of their ministry 20+ years down the road. The want the quick fix and ignore the wisdom from many sides that says a quick fix will fade soon and you will be left with nothing.
    In fact anyone that tries to advice toward the long term goal is given an ultimatum it seems. They draw the line in the sand and figure out who is with them in their new strategies and those who seem to advice against it are pushed away. How sad it is to see that the end goal is not held by all.

    • Laura Parker

      Brooke- wow, challenging for sure to be wanted only for your resources, essentially. That’s tough. I find that so much of cross cultural work is PATIENCE, right? I’ll pray for you guys for that today– for patience to keep saying the right things, keep casting vision, keep pushing forward. Hang in there. I think the fact that you are working so closely with nationals is admirable– many overseas workers don’t even do that.

    • Gary Ware

      Sounds like you attended some of our past meetings. A friend had to discontinue fellowship with us because doing so could have forced him from an organization. His ministry blossomed in-spite of every effort by certain people to destroy it, because of jealousy. Military veterans all have one thing in common – SCARS – physical, mental or both. Veterans of good causes and fights are scarred also. Stay the course.

  • Colleen Connell Mitchell

    I work so hard to fight this temptation to think that because we are doing good and need support that our good is the only one worth supporting. I want to empower my friends and family for action. Perhaps it is my ministry that will draw them to the poor and suffering in the world. Perhaps it’s someone else’s. I can’t care. More than anything I want them to be drawn. I want them to know the good being done by grass roots organizations getting dirty on the ground with their causes. I don’t rescue slaves from slavery. But I passionately believe they should be rescued. And I want others to believe it too. So even in the midst of my own fundraising, I tell everyone I know about the work of Exodus Road. I can’t get kids in Iraq life saving heart surgery, but I know a group who can. And I want others to know about their work. I’m not saving babies in Haiti, but I know someone who is. If someone I know is moved to be passionate and take action for one of these causes, then I will be grateful for the humbling opportunity to have empowered that. We had a pretty ugly dose of this reality this year and I cannot handle it. I think it might go back to the fact that I would’ve been the seven year old crying in the sandbox because people were being mean to each other. Remember one of our very first conversations? I repeat it all preachy style all the time…..”He owns ALL the cattle on the hill sides. And He wants to do ALL the good, ALL the time. Because He is all the good.” Okay, and sometimes it’s followed by, “So get the @@#@#& over it, people.” But I’m a good Southern girl too, so just pretend you didn’t hear that part.

    • Laura Parker

      Oh my goodness, this comment made me smile on so many levels. I LOVE your heart. You GET it. And I LOVE that about you and your work. And those last few sentences– priceless.

      Thanks for being a cheerleader for so many, Colleen– you’ve definitely championed the Exodus Road and I am so so grateful.

  • Kelley J. Leigh

    A complex situation well articulated. Thanks for the clarifying behind-the-scenes point of view, Laura.

    • Laura Parker

      Thanks, Friend. :)

  • David Schoch

    I have to say that in our line of work, it is so very hard not to be cynical. I have approached so many NGO’s in the country we work in for information or to see if there is any way to work together on something, I rarely receive any positive reaction unless they feel they can use us. This subject stirs a lot of emotion in me, I could rant on it for hours, but I won’t. Thank-you for articulating on this subject in a much nicer way than I would have.

    • Laura Parker

      Ugh- I get it! YES it is SO frustrating. When we began working esp. when we were living overseas, we spent about a year asking, and not really getting, ANY meetings with anyone. It was so incredibly frustrating. Hang in there . . . it IS really hard . . .

  • Teri Miller

    yikes. thanks for the inside scoop.
    sometimes things look so romantic & adventurous on the outside, we don’t realize how petty the playing field can get.

    • Laura Parker

      Yes– how petty the playing field can get, for sure. So often it feels like everyone is fighting for a bigger slice of the pie without realizing that we’re really on the pie aisle of Costco, and the supplies for everyone to succeed ARE really there.

  • Angie Washington

    Laura, my dear passionate friend, this is perfect >> There is no scarcity of evil to fight in the world, but there’s
    also no scarcity of resources or people or passion to bring good,

    I am so glad to be in the sandbox with YOU. :-)

Previous post:

Next post: