Business strategy has been my focus for more than 20 years. The most popular area of business strategy is “competitive strategy.” In the business world, we often adopt the language of sports or warfare — “How do we win?” or “How do we beat our competitors?” We often approach the market with a zero-sum mindset — for our company to gain a customer, all of our competitors have to lose that customer. But does this approach make sense for mission-driven non-profits like the church? Can church strategy include competition?
I think it helps to break this question down by thinking about for who or what you might be competing. Many non-profits are especially seeking to attract three different types of individuals who have some level of freedom to choose:
- Donors are the primary source of funding for many non-profits. Donors have many options for putting their charitable giving to work.
- Volunteers are a primary workforce for many non-profits. Community members have plenty of places they can apply their wisdom, skills, experience, and spare time to make this a better world.
- Clients (different non-profits will have different names for this group) are those being served by the non-profit. Depending on their specific need, clients may have multiple options for meeting that need.
Church Strategy May Mean Competing for Donors, Volunteers, and Clients
For many non-profits, their survival depends on their ability to attract donors, volunteers, and clients. Realistically, non-profits are competing to win the commitment of these decision makers.
But is the mindset the same as truly “competing”? Is it really “winner takes all”? Do we need to try to “crush” our “competitors”? I hope not! I think the best example I’ve seen of a healthy mindset towards the “competitive” environment was when I served on the board for the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma twenty years ago. At the time, we were working on a capital campaign to raise funding to complete construction of our ReStore facility.
Central to that campaign was what we called the “2020 Vision Housing Partners Program”:
We envision a future for the Tulsa metro area in which everyone has a safe, decent and affordable place to live.
As an organization, we were very focused on doing as much as we could to make this vision a reality, however, we knew that we couldn’t accomplish it on our own. The families that Habitat was best positioned to serve only represented a small portion of the total population that, at that time, lacked a “safe, decent and affordable place to live.” Our vision was very heavily reliant on other organizations (what some might call our competitors) all working toward the same vision. Some of those partners were for-profit corporations, some were non-profits like us, and some were governmental agencies and programs.
As we spoke to donors, volunteers, and clients, it was critical that we be able to clearly communicate our distinctives — those things that defined our unique role in bringing this vision to fruition. Especially with donors and volunteers, we wanted to convince them that their investment in Habitat would be a good decision for them, but we realized that for some, another organization working towards our same vision would be a better fit. There was always a bit of disappointment when we “lost” one of these potential supporters, but we viewed it positively within the overall context of our mission and vision.
So, in short, your non-profit (your church) undoubtedly is competing with others for critical resources. That doesn’t mean that your mission will be best served by having a “winner take all” competitive mindset. Often we do better to find ways to “win together” to achieve our mission, our church strategy to its fullest.