How rivalry is undoing the good of the social sector

Survival at all costs, the quest for high impact and ambition to reach scale are defining and often celebrated features of the social sector. But is the competitive culture that many organisations find themselves in creating a dangerous rivalry, with the potential to counter social aims?

There is a great irony running through the world of nonprofits and social enterprise – well, actually there are quite a few, but let’s just concentrate on one for now. And that is that for a lot of these organisations, success in their mission would essentially mean eliminating all reason for them to exist anymore. It is unfortunate, therefore, that in my experience the majority of these organisations seem to see increased growth in impact and turnover as success, and see other organisations that exist for the very same cause as competition. Their own existence takes on more importance than the cause which they have been set up to make a contribution to. 

I notice that many social problems have deeper underlying causes that remain unaddressed by the organisations tackling those issues. One of the deep systemic problems with society today is the cultural value we place on competitiveness, arguably more so than cooperation. It runs through our education system, where kids are seen as competing with each other for top grades from five years old, and it certainly runs through the business world, where the attitude of businesses towards their rivals is often cut-throat bordering on sociopathic.

A little bit of neuropsychology. To justify a particular mental position, I frequently hear one of the following two arguments: “yes, but this is so because humans are naturally competitive creatures” and “well this is the way it is because we are naturally social and cooperative animals”. So which is true? They can’t both be!? Well, actually they both are true. Humans are phenomenally adaptable to the culture they are born in to. If being cooperative is the best strategy, then that’s what we’ll do. If being competitive is the right strategy, then we’ll take that on. But here’s the clincher, in terms of our wellbeing we do benefit when we have strong relationships, and relationships are easier to build when we see others as potential collaborators, rather than rivals.

I would argue that a gradual cultural shift away from competition and towards collaboration would do us rather a lot of good. So those involved in the world of good causes – nonprofits, social enterprise, public sector organisations and other curiously named and confusing beasts – would do well to embody this change and set the example. Unfortunately, many charities seem to take on the view that other charities working towards the same cause as them (the mental health sector was my experience) are actually their enemies, rather than friends.

Their survival as an organisation is more important than the very cause that gives them the reason to exist. How are they ever going to eliminate the problem if it is not actually in their self-interest as an organisation to do so? Best not to underestimate the effect of such a conflict of interest. Better to look like they’re doing something effective (and create good funding presentations and proposals) than genuinely get to the heart of the issue – and indeed this is often how it plays out. The end result? A lot of money and time goes in to going round in bigger and bigger circles, whilst the issues remain and society doesn’t improve in the way we hope. 

This may appear like insanity from a distance, but from close up it’s easy to see how this happens. You believe your organisation can have a great impact – of course, or you wouldn’t be there (or wouldn’t have started it up if you’re an entrepreneur). So you need money and resources. Unfortunately, as we all know in these sectors, there’s not a whole lot of cash around. Ah, and there are other organisations after them as well. Well then they must be my competitors then. And this mindset gets stuck.

I know that others working in these sectors are having similar realisations. A friend of mine (who I must not name, or else terrible things will happen to me) who works at prominent social innovation organisation (who I also must not name, or else even more terrible things will likely happen to me), tells me that currently they are discussing a couple of relevant matters. Firstly, whether their support should be aimed at groups, rather than individuals, in order to reduce the competitiveness that current prevails. And secondly, whether social ventures are being propped up that don’t actually have any impact, but simply exist so that they continue to exist.

If you want to improve other people’s lives and society as a whole (which is noble), then it is not about you or your organisation. Rather, if other people and organisations enter the fray and start doing just as good or even better job then, if your motives are coming from a genuine place rather than a selfish one, you ought to feel delighted rather than threatened. I may be wide of the mark, but my instinct is that there are only a very small percentage of people involved in this work who are coming at it from this genuine place. It is for this reason that I feel the fields of psychology and spirituality/wisdom (which has sadly drifted out of western culture) have a great deal to offer those in the world of social change – which I’ll write about more another time!

Problems can’t be solved on the same level of thinking that they were created. An (unnecessarily) competitive, selfish and anxiety-driven culture is, in part at least, to blame for many of the social problems we see today. A competitive, selfish and anxiety-driven approach to solving those problems will only, much to our frustration, fuel them further.