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July 3, 2020
'Nonprofits No Longer Have the Luxury to Decide When to Act'
March 9, 2020 — Increasing competition from for-profits, generated by a growing recognition among corporations that they are responsible to a broad range of stakeholders, means nonprofits must focus on creating a movement that people want to join, a gathering of Massachusetts nonprofit leaders was told today.

While nonprofits, along with governments and non-governmental organizations, traditionally were seen as custodians of incremental change, nonprofits no longer have the luxury to decide when and how to implement new initiatives, Simon Mainwaring, founder and chief executive officer of We First, a brand consultancy, told 300 people attending the annual Nonprofit Board Summit in Boston, organized by the Harvard Business School Association of Boston.

Rapidly rising expectations for nonprofit (and for-profits) to do more, better and faster, on any number of issues, such as climate change, resource management, or hunger and homelessness, means advocating for incremental change will no longer suffice, he said.

As for-profit entities increasingly compete for customers by committing to goals beyond their bottom line—Airbnb is about "universal belonging," Tesla is committed to "sustainable transportation," Patagonia is focused on "responsible economy"—Mainwaring said nonprofits operating in "the new purpose-led landscape" will need to act in new ways.

Instead of staking out a cause and rallying people to it, and seeking their funds to support the nonprofit's efforts, nonprofits should discover the causes people are rallying around within their "category of impact," e.g., fighting hunger, and mobilize resources and people to address those causes, Mainwaring said.

It adds up to nonprofits creating their own unique brand that authentically engages people who already are committed to the brand's purpose.

"People want to be a part of something that inspires," said Mainwaring, suggesting nonprofit fundraising appeals too often rely on messages focused on their actions instead of enlisting donors to solve a problem. Instead of reporting that it delivered so many thousands of meals in the last year, nonprofits will better be able to engage committed supporters by asking them to help prepare kids to learn by sending them to school on a full stomach.

"Nonprofits need to shift from being the chief celebrity of their nonprofit world, to being a celebrant," Mainwaring said. "They should celebrate the participation of others and empower them."

Most importantly, nonprofits need to communicate that they are in the community architecture business, not the fundraising business, he said.

To get there, nonprofit boards need to ensure that their organization understand their purpose, i.e., why they exist. They also need to fulfill their responsibility to define the mission, which, Mainwaring said, entails laying out their organization will achieve their purpose.

He suggested that nonprofits can build their brand by identifying what is unique and proprietary about them in their category of impact. They should ask themselves what their enemy within that category is. (By way of comparison, Airbnb identified impersonal hotel accommodations as the enemy it was confronting.) They identify their uniqueness within their category and answer the question, "When you are at your best, what are you doing?"
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