Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Assymetry versus Strategic Funding

My friend, Tom, over at the True Talk Blog, has an interesting post called "Asymmetry is the New Black." The concept of asymmetry explains how small, start-up companies or organizations can effectively compete and steal marketshare from larger, established ones. Tom sees asymmetry in action in everything from YouTube to the blogging movement to the Iraqi insurgency.

Tom explains it like this:
Asymmetrical competitors use size (small), speed (fast), and thinking (innovative) to more than compensate for their relative lack of resources. This brand of competition is enabled by today's technology, which dramatically reduces the barriers to entry.
As I wrote in my comment on Tom's blog, I love the concept that being small and agile is a competitive advantage in the corporate world. It's a very exciting and inspiring idea.

Unfortunately, in the nonprofit world, we tend to be behind the curve in these types of trends. Right now it's seems that we're all witnessing contraction and mergers.

This is at least partly the result of funders getting more "strategic" with their dollars (ie: fewer, larger grants to established organizations, rather than many smaller grants to a variety of organizations).

While nonprofits look to joining forces with each other to achieve some sort of efficiency, what are we losing? Does our growth destroy the competitive edge we had in achieving our missions? I'm afraid that may well be the case in some of this.

So, how do we communicate this to funders? We've got to let them know that small is beautiful!

Tom says that, "The only option for established market leaders? Get small, get fast, get smart. Now." Isn't it an irony that as the corporate world adopts this ideology, we're being told to do the opposite?


  1. Seems to me that non-profits have to figure out how to use the new asymmetry to their advantage. GE is a great example of the "big/small" mindset; a huge company that knows how to keep working groups small enough to get things to happen. Actually, speed and innovative thinking strike me as more serious challenges to NFPs. Too much bureaucracy and "symbolic involvement" in decision-making always made me crazy when I worked in the public mental health world. I don't see much to make me think those challenges have been successfully met in the 20 years since I left. Let's hope urgency focuses the minds of public sector leaders before it's too late.

  2. Interesting book on this topic might be The Spider and the Starfish. The book talks about the strengths of decentralized organizations where many share a common vision, but each is independent in how to achieve the vision.

    The book talks about blended organizations that support such decentralized operations, such as eBey.

    I bring this up because I feel this is a way that many non profits doing similar work can be linked together in ways that attract donors, yet stay independent in how they use the donor resources.

    I'm applying this thinking in building a network of organizations that offer volunteer-based tutoring/mentoring in Chicago and other big cities. I've been doing this since 1993, thus do have some examples of success, even though there is tremendous resistence.

    I'd like to connect with others who are creating such networks of common purpose.