Forbes: How Small Nonprofits Can Compete With The Nonprofit Giants

Over the past 10 years, some nonprofits have entered the scene and gone from being startups to having major impacts on the global challenges they are addressing in a short amount of time. They did not achieve this success by following the old playbook. Organizations like Charity Water, WE and Red Nose, as well as my own, threw out the rules and created new models that allowed them to scale up quickly, engage new audiences and do a tremendous amount of good. What were their secrets? What can your small nonprofit learn that will allow you to grow and become successful?

My nonprofit, Vitamin Angels, started off 26 years ago with no capital, no credentials and no celebrity to help us get the word out. In many ways, there was no reason we should have survived, but we did. During these intervening years, we competed against much larger, behemoth nonprofits, and still came out on top. Here are some of the lessons I have learned.

1. No name recognition is OK.

Don’t let the fact that you are unknown deter you. My nonprofit once competed against two of the biggest nonprofits in the world with billions of dollars in assets and major name recognition. My nonprofit was unknown, but we used this to our advantage. Our name wasn’t on every checkout counter and would not be lost — we were unique. Use what makes your organization unique as a strength, even if you aren’t a big name.

2. Be responsive.

Most large nonprofits move slowly. They have committees and many layers of approval to get through before starting partnerships. Small nonprofits can turn on a dime. When my nonprofit was competing for a contract, there were times when we’d get a 30-page list of questions on Friday, and we’d work all weekend so we would have a response by Monday morning. While you don’t necessarily need to do that, it’s crucial that your small nonprofit is agile and responsive in order to grow. 

3. Customize. 

Big nonprofits often have a menu for how you can donate. You give a certain amount, and you get one benefit from column A and one from column B. Don’t be a one-size-fits-all organization. As a small nonprofit you can tailor your offering for the specific company you are going after.

4. Start small.

Many nonprofit giants have a high bar as a point of entry — you have to donate $50,000 to even begin a partnership. One of our biggest partners today (in the high six-figure range) started out with a $5,000 donation.

5. Find a working board.

Find a board that is willing to work for you. They don’t have to be the biggest names like the big nonprofits have. People who have connections with potential partners can do you a world of good.

6. Think big.

Don’t be afraid to take on a major goal that is yours and yours alone. Our first major goal was to eliminate global childhood blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency. No one else had ever said that, and it got people’s attention. You can always backfill capacity later.

7. What you don’t know can be your greatest ally. 

Early on we did many things that were “impossible.” We didn’t know that it was unrealistic to go after a partnership with a billion-dollar company given our size. But we came up with a compelling program and that company became our first large corporate sponsor. 

8. Leverage passion.

Passion goes a long way. A small organization with a leader who is really on fire can display passion in a way that the large organizations cannot. With the nonprofit giants, it is likely that a partner will be pitched by a development person. It is very unlikely the president or CEO will ever be there for an initial meeting; they’re just too busy. Let your potential partners see who you are. Your people can be your greatest resource to show potential partners that you are all in. Passion is infectious and very attractive to companies you want to work with.

9. Zero in.

Don’t try to be all things to all people. Large organizations can build homes and feed people and educate children and offer medical care. As a small nonprofit, you need to find one thing you’re good at and focus on that. For my organization, it was evidence-based nutrition interventions. For Charity Water, it was digging wells. For Toms, it was shoes. For WE, it was rallying young people. With a specific focus, you can become the expert.

10. Focus on resonance.

Find your base of support. Who will resonate the most with your message and your focus? Giant organizations are always looking for the big funders. You can find your niche and be successful there. Once you have a base, you can begin to build. For my organization, it was the natural products industry, vitamin manufacturers and companies selling nutritional supplements. They already believed in what we were doing, and by partnering with us, they could also show their customers they were doing good.

Bottom Line

Don’t worry about being first. Just be better. My organization was not the only organization distributing vitamins when we started, but we did customize our message for a specific audience. Charity Water was not the first organization to dig wells, but it was the first to craft compelling marketing pitches. WE didn’t invent working with youth, but it created outrageous stadium events to draw in young people in a way no one else had ever attempted.

The list goes on, but the message remains: You can compete against the large organizations. You just have to stop looking at what you don’t have (i.e., money, name recognition, celebrities, etc.) and focus on your greatest asset: a unique brand with tons of passion and a creative drive to succeed.

To view the original article, visit: