collaboration competitionIs competition a good thing?

This morning I googled the phrase “collaboration is a good thing,” and found 2,650 results. Then I googled “competition is a good thing,” and came up with 80,700 results.

For every web-page that has acknowledged the hard-won value of collaborative projects and processes, there are 30 web-pages that hale the hallmark of North American enterprise, competition. This shouldn’t surprise me. We live in competitive times. For my entire adult life, competition has been credited with everything from maintaining the quality of healthcare and education in America to sending people to the moon to spurring innovation.

This month, competition is being credited with helping more people to serve. That’s right. One of those 80,700 results for “competition is a good thing” is a quote from a fellow social innovator who I deeply respect, Jonathan Greenblatt. His quote appeared in Suzanne Perry’s recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “An Obama-Inspired Volunteer-Recruitment Web Site Will Soon Debut.”

Jonathan was referring to the unfortunate (in my opinion) dynamic that has characterized my organization’s relationship with the recently launched All for Good platform. Social Actions and All for Good are both open source databases that help people find and share opportunities to make a difference.

Social Actions was built from the bottom up, by and for the nonprofit technology sector. All for Good was built from the top down with inspiration coming directly from President Obama’s call for a Craigslist for Service and with support from Google and the Craigslist Foundation. All for Good’s board of directors reads like a Who’s Who of technology, the media, and nonprofit worlds. Social Actions supporters, friends, and mentors are the rockstars of the nonprofit technology sector, ie, geeks who care.

As far as I am concerned, there is no need for Social Actions and All for Good to compete with one another in an effort to help more Americans find ways to serve. Here’s why:

  • There’s no such thing as an organization too big to collaborate
  • There’s no such thing as an organization too small to collaborate with
  • When the grassroots and giants conspire for good, the possibilities are endless (think Obama)

Most importantly, in certain circumstances, collaborative dynamics and processes can be far more effective at producing innovation than competition. For example, Social Actions has been working for the last five months on a project called the Social Entrepreneur API. We have brought together the staff of five leading award programs in social entrepreneurship and are building out the infrastructure for distributing information about social entrepreneurs far and wide. The service, which will launch later this summer, represents a breakthrough example of similar organizations leaving their similarities and differences behind and actively pursuing a collaborative opportunity that advances the entire field of social entrepreneurship.

I worry that if All for Good and Social Actions become outright competitors, the outcome will not be as good for volunteerism and service as it could be. Conversations about open standards will become partisan. Efforts to create innovative applications that distribute ways to do good will be duplicated. And the opportunity to lead the social sector by example in the direction of collaborative innovation will be squandered.

I’ll leave you with this thought: global competition may have sent people into outer space for the first time, but now collaboration between large and small nations keeps them there. I cannot recall if that sentiment is original. If it’s not original, please let me know who I should give credit to. Attribution for a good idea is the first step toward collaborative innovation.

Here are some questions for this discussion:

  • Is it possible for large and small organizations to collaborate?
  • In what circumstances does collaborating compromise or contribute to innovation?
  • In what circumstances does competing compromise or contribute to innovation?
  • If you had to choose competition or collaboration as your default, which would you choose?

Join Peter Deitz in the conversation.