FIERCE Competition in Nonprofits: It Isn’t a Bad Thing


IMA commits to being a FIERCE competitor because we believe doing so leads to more innovation and “sharpness” in serving mission to enrich careers, organizations, and the public interest. In many ways, for-profit entities share the same goals and objectives as nonprofit organizations and vice versa. For example, a nonprofit’s mission to guide and vision to inspire can be applied in for-profit entities; and intense focus on value, resource allocation, performance metrics, competitive differentiators, and many more for-profit factors can be applied in nonprofits. Ultimately, nonprofits need to operate like “real” businesses.

Similarly, nonprofits and for-profits share in the fierce competition environment, since fierce competition helps grow and sustain a nonprofit business. This is how I define fierce competition and it’s role and value in nonprofit organizations:


Focused on mission

A nonprofit must be laser-focused on its mission and societal purpose. Keeping your members, and their interests, top-of-mind will help you create products and services tailored to their needs. This will build your organization’s professional brand and create loyal, long-time members. There’s nothing wrong with embracing a competitive edge and developing innovative and differentiated products.



CompetitionFierce competition serves to benefit stakeholders with a relentless and unwavering emphasis on value and innovation. No one should drive in the rearview. In business, commoditization can be a kiss of death, while innovation and first-mover advantage can be business’s saviors on the path to sustainable growth and value.



Similar to innovation, being entrepreneurial means that the leadership of the nonprofit should behave like owners of a business, with “skin in the game” to make decisions that are customer-centric and timely. Although silos exist to ensure functional expertise, they must also work seamlessly and collaboratively to serve mission and society.



This is very tricky, but required (in my opinion), for a nonprofit fierce competitor. Having been a CFO in a large for-profit telecom in arguably the most hyper-competitive environment ever faced in business, I often was behind closed doors and emoted how badly I wished to crush the competition (ethically, of course). In a nonprofit environment, members and society benefit when you have this competitive edge, but you must always treat your competitors with respect because they’re usually also partners in advancing the profession for the public interest. Being fierce means having conviction of purpose but with trust, integrity, and respect top of mind. It’s all about protecting the brand.



Another element of fierce competition is being courageous, which is appropriate in any business environment. Being courageous means tackling the tough problems and issues with resolve and conviction of purpose. Your stakeholders count on you to tackle problems head on and to not take the easy way out.



And last but not least, be fierce and empathetic. Business is an ecosystem of competitors, partners, customers, members, influencers, and shareholders—all human beings with a purpose. Be an active listener. Don’t settle for artificial harmony or, at the other extreme, personalizing situations. Allow people to weigh in before they buy in. Be caring. Embracing core values leads to enhanced bottom-line value.


Nonprofits as Fierce Competitors

I believe that competition in any environment incentivizes stronger, leaner, agile, and more innovative organizations. Just because nonprofit organizations emphasize mission over profit, doesn’t mean they can’t be fierce competitors. While nonprofits can’t earn a profit per se–“no money, no mission”—behaving like an ethical business only helps better serve members and society.

IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) is one of the fastest-growing accounting associations in the world with an unwavering and relentless focus on growing the CMA program, the world’s leading credential in management accounting; enhancing the member value proposition; engaging students and young professionals; and embracing technology to enable more capable organizations. In short, we commit to being FIERCE competitors.


Written by Jeff Thomson


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