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.