Competition and Collaboration in the Nonprofit Sector: Identifying the Potential for Cognitive Dissonance

Date01 September 2021
Published date01 September 2021
Subject MatterPerspectives
Administration & Society
2021, Vol. 53(8) 1293 –1311
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211005834
Competition and
Collaboration in the
Nonprofit Sector:
Identifying the Potential
for Cognitive Dissonance
Cali Curley1, Jamie Levine Daniel2,
Marlene Walk2,
and Nicky Harrison2
Nonprofits compete with collaborators and collaborate with competitors
regularly. Collaboration, a long-standing normatively preferred strategy for
nonprofits, is utilized as modus operandi without thought to the potential
unintended consequences. While competition is a dirty word for nonprofits,
it is a necessary but undesirable reality and should not be avoided without
consideration to the potential benefits. Nonprofit leaders may not be
willing to explicitly acknowledge the use of competition as an operational
strategy, which makes room for cognitive dissonance to impact the study
of nonprofits. This piece identifies impacts of cognitive dissonance offering
direction for future research exploring the interactive nature of competing
with collaborators.
collaboration, competition, nonprofits
1University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, USA
2Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, USA
Corresponding Author:
Cali Curley, Department of Political Science, University of Miami, 1300 Campo Sano,
Coral Gables, FL 33124, USA.
1005834AAS0010.1177/00953997211005834Administration & SocietyCurley et al.
1294 Administration & Society 53(8)
Nonprofits face increasing scarcity of available resources resulting in the
need to become more innovative in service delivery. Collaboration, an oper-
ating norm in the nonprofit sector (Gazley, 2010), has been used to decrease
burdens on nonprofits through the process of service delivery (Bunger &
Gillespie, 2014; Gazley, 2010), resource sharing, and grant seeking (Bunger,
2013). Some view collaboration as normatively good (Gazley, 2010), pos-
sessing the potential to overcome a variety of challenges organizations expe-
rience (McGuire & Silvia, 2015). However, collaboration is only one
mechanism. Competition is another potential mechanism of innovation (Hill
& Myatt, 2007) and has long been used in the private sector (Goddard, 2015)
to drive efficiency. These mechanisms are simultaneously occurring, increas-
ing pressures for nonprofits to collaborate and compete with one another.
Despite scarce resources and an increasing acknowledgment of competi-
tion among nonprofits, competition is often faced with scrutiny and viewed
as a necessary but undesirable reality by leaders (Sharp, 2018). This may be
motivated by the long-standing history that nonprofits have favored collabo-
ration (Lamont, 1991) with its use being commonplace among nonprofits
since at least the 1980s (Gazley & Guo, 2015). Despite the relative avoidance
of explicit competition, nonprofits are engaging in different forms of compe-
tition with one another (e.g., for clients, grants, donors), a process that creates
winners and losers in the pursuit for limited resources (Bunger, 2013). This
suggests that while nonprofits are inherently competing, they are also explic-
itly seeking collaborative opportunities with those same competitors. This
makes the relationship between competition and collaboration for nonprofits
a contradiction that nonprofits leaders must reconcile.
The confluence of collaboration and competition raises a series of ques-
tions about how nonprofits actively collaborate with competitors and com-
pete with collaborators. The need to reconcile this confluence of competitors
and collaborators who are one and the same may foster cognitive dissonance.
This perspective piece posits the presence and implications of cognitive dis-
sonance for nonprofit leaders and future research using support from an
explicitly competitive case study.
Cognitive Dissonance
Tuckman (1998) suggested that competition in nonprofit markets is increas-
ing and raised “questions as to the impacts of this rivalry” (p. 175); yet com-
petition in the nonprofit sector remains understudied (Ritchie & Weinberg,
2000). Despite the evidence that competition matters to nonprofit perfor-
mance and survival, collaboration is the strategic operating norm (Gazley,

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