Collaboration or competition? Let the nonprofit sector answer that question

Join us for the final installment of our interview with Michael Edwards about his book, Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World. In this portion of the interview, find out where you can follow the debate about philanthrocapitalism, and learn more about Edwards’ views on collaboration versus competition.

CausePlanet: The notion of philanthrocapitalism sounds like the next new great idea at first blush—especially to those who haven’t read your book. Are there any blogs, newsletters or periodicals you would recommend that provide an ongoing, unbiased evaluation of philanthrocapitalism as it evolves?

Edwards: That’s a tough call, though I’m already beginning to see more pushback, constructive criticism and healthy debate about these questions. It’s still very difficult to be honest and open about this stuff because of a justifiable fear of offending the donors, and there’s a huge industry of advisers, consultants and bloggers who act as an echo chamber for the philanthrocapitalists and their views, often in ways that are quite divorced from the day-to-day concerns and experiences of the nonprofit community. But I would definitely recommend The Nonprofit Quarterly, for example, which does speak up and is not afraid to take up the difficult questions, and Blue Avocado. The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy is also very good, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy publishes opinions on both sides of the debate.

CausePlanet: Everyone talks a big game about collaboration in the nonprofit sector, but many nonprofits still don’t believe that a rising tide lifts all boats despite positive examples. You support collaboration by way of addressing businesses’ misguided favor of competition among nonprofits. Can you explain?

Edwards: This is one of the most contested issues in the debate over philanthrocapitalism, and it’s partly down to language. If “competition” simply means doing one’s best for the causes one believes in, or striving to be the best that we can be, then it would be odd to argue against it. But if it means competition in the formal, business sense of building market share against other providers, often by driving prices down and profits up, then I think that’s very damaging to the nonprofit mission of securing equal rights for all. After all, you can’t have too much social justice or compassion, and securing things like that requires a rich diversity of organizations acting like an ecosystem so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The elements of an ecosystem co-exist in a mutually-supportive relationship, they don’t compete. Obviously, nonprofits have to secure resources in environments where they are scarce, but that doesn’t mean that competition should define the sector and its work.

CausePlanet: What factors characterize high-performing, appropriate collaborations between philanthrocapitalists and nonprofits?

Edwards: Honesty, humility, authenticity, self-criticism and an equal valuing of what each has to bring to the table. Those qualities may be absent from many current collaborations (which are very one-sided, reflecting the power imbalance and structures of privilege that run through much of philanthropy), but they determine whether enough common ground exists to make the work effective, to set it on the right road, and to monitor and address any problems that arise along the way. There’s a saying from the foreign aid world that I think is relevant here: “If you have come to help me, go home now. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let’s get to work.” That captures the spirit of equality and mutual learning that all successful collaborations require. But that is very demanding, because it requires openness to change—deep, personal change—on both sides.

For more information about Small Change, visit Michael Edwards’ site at For the complete interview and summary, visit our summary store or subscribe to our monthly summaries of Page to Practice. Or, you can keep up with what we’re reading on Facebook and Twitter.

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