Fri, February 01 2008

A scarcity mentality leads to scarcity

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Filed under:   Marketing essentials •

I was having lunch with some of my favorite web designers the other day, and we got to talking about the scarcity mentality. They were especially irritated with unethical web designers that create websites that nonprofits can’t access themselves, so they could generate more business for their firms in perpetuity. They told the story of one nonprofit that hired them saying their last designer wouldn’t even give them high-resolution electronic files of the logo they’d designed—so the firm could charge the nonprofit each time it needed to do something with their logo. It had never occurred to that nonprofit to beware of that in their contract. While this made the firm money in the short term, the nonprofit was so irate they hired a new designer (my friends) and doubtlessly spread lots of bad word of mouth about that awful firm.

Hoarding, secrecy and a spirit of scarcity are not good strategies.

Then I saw this excellent point made by blogger Terri:

The non-profit universe is set up so that everyone must compete for the same money. This prevents a lot of networking, partnering and coalition-building. I think this is a shame. Just as it is possible for me to invite you over for dinner without giving you my house, it must be possible for agencies and others to connect and interact in ways that increase the visibility, credibility and effectiveness of everyone.

I love the dinner/house analogy, Terri. Well said.

In addition to funding fears curtailing collaboration in our sector, I see information-hoarding as another bad phenomenon. I’m appalled by some funders, nonprofits and companies that serve our sector refusing to freely share what they know and learn.

They don’t get that scarcity mentalities lead to more scarcity.

I believe in giving away everything you can, in sharing information freely and in collaborating openly with others. While this sounds scary in a competitive world, it actually gets you more resources at the end of the day. When you’re generous with others, they usually end up reciprocating. You get absolutely amazing word of mouth and massive amounts of goodwill. When you join forces with worthy partners, you usually get more visibility and resources for both parties. When you act with integrity, you get more business. Really.

I’m not saying there isn’t competition in this world. I’m saying how we react to it is critical to our success. We can fight over the same small patches of territory or we can try to band together for a bigger land grab. The rare disease organizations have done this with great success with federal funding. Newspapers have done this to great success, making online content free - they then get more traffic and therefore more ad revenue. Network for Good does this too with our Learning Center and free calls - we share everything we know about fundraising. And we’ve ended up with more nonprofits using our services, which has led to more revenue.

Generosity has an excellent ROI.

Parsimony pays back accordingly.


  • Comment: (6)   


Hi Katya,

I work for Everyday Democracy, formerly the Study Circles Resource Center. I discovered your site via Eric R at The Harwood Institute, and we included Robin Hood Marketing in a post yesterday at our DemocracySpace blog. Click my name.

Here’s another book I’d strongly recommend: “Getting a Grip” by Frances Moore Lappe. On the front foldout cover of this little paperback (a great airplane read!), she outlines a “spiral of powerlessness” predicated on the scarcity mentality that you’ve described. On the back flap, she celebrates a “Spiral of Empowerment” premised on “plenty of goods and goodness.” The whole book is dedicated to fleshing out how to live with that attitude of abundance and how to put that into practice in our communities, nation, and world.

Frankie was our guest for the Jan 17 kickoff of the Everyday Democracy Book Club. You can find the transcript at our DemSpace wiki:

Posted by Julie Fanselow  on  02/01  at  05:15 PM

Conceptually, I think that any money donated to a non-profit isn’t really “owned” by the non-profit.  It’s community money, and should be spent in a way that broadly benefits the community from which it came.  After all, if the donor/foundation didn’t give the money to your organization, it likely would have gone to another.  And with respect to knowledge and information, I believe it’s incumbent upon the nonprofit to share so that others directly benefit from the investment made by the donor.  Doing anything less (in most cases) diminishes the value of the investment.  Plus, it’s fun and gratifying to see where your information/knowledge ends up, and how it’s used.


Posted by Steve Albertson  on  02/01  at  10:32 PM
Katya Andresen's avatar

Thanks!  I remember reading Food First years ago.  I’ll have to check out this book.
What an important point.  I hadn’t though of it but you’re absolutely right.  There is a moral and ethical imperative to share information.  Well said.


Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/02  at  05:05 PM

I agree that the scarcity mindset is paralyzing—or worse, diminishing. I think the boundaries about having dinner guests safely are already established and commonly understood. I think non-profits have yet to work out boundaries for safe, productive collaboration.

Thank you for the link and including me in your post!


Posted by Terri  on  02/03  at  12:47 AM

I agree that generosity has a great ROI, although hard to quantify ... that is how you can quantify love?

BTW, Michele Martin has an excellent post on the topic of scarcity thinking and nonprofits

Posted by Beth Kanter  on  02/04  at  05:39 PM

Katya - an excellent post, thank you so much for sharing it.  And Beth - thank you for the pointer to Michele Martin’s post on the topic, it’s also excellent.

I would add that many non-profits feel that they can’t invest in well-executed marketing materials or well-organized publicity efforts because they fear that the organization will look “too polished.”  Somehow a shoddy public face - visible scarcity if you will - is considered preferable. 

I think this is exactly the wrong approach.  Crisp marketing and clear communications inspire confidence.  They jumpstart a virtuous cycle that draws new supporters in, and keeps existing supporters engaged. 

For those of us in the industry, I’d argue that the more we can do to combat this mindset of scarcity and half-measures, the better.

Leyla Farah
Cause+Effect - Public Relations with a Purpose

Posted by Leyla Farah  on  02/18  at  10:39 PM

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