Selfish Relationship Syndrome: Is Unhealthy Competition Inhibiting Success In Your Organisation?

Many nonprofits operate different programs, and this can mean operating between different teams. In these situations, a sponsorship or corporate partners program and a philanthropic program will have particular team dynamics to work with, which may include:

  • reporting to the same supervisor in the same department
  • reporting to different supervisors within the same department
  • reporting to different supervisors in different departments

Occasionally, unhealthy competition can grow between teams. If they view themselves as competing for limited external funds to help advance their organisation, there can be a disincentive to collaborate (especially if housed in different departments).


When there are potential supporters being contacted for both corporate sponsorships and philanthropy, this can present a challenge. Some supervisors seek competition between areas as a way to motivate two teams to secure the maximum resources possible. As a result, teams often work harder to make their team look good and the other team look not so good—this will put their team in favour with leadership and, hopefully, secure more resources in the budget for the team.

This internal competition can result in a game of cat and mouse—with prospect information, reports of contact, and “ownership” of the potential supporter. For example, the corporate sponsorship team may be hesitant to make a soft hand off to the philanthropy team out of fear the corporate contact will be upset they are now being pursued for a donation or, indeed, that the contact will shift from being a corporate sponsor to becoming a philanthropic supporter. Added to this is the fear of losing the control of information and the relationship—especially the VIP relationship. The internal hand over is not worth the risk in the eyes of the corporate sponsorship team. The reverse dynamic is also commonly seen: the philanthropic team resisting opportunities to assist the sponsorship team.

The tension that has been created can inhibit teams from working together and in the end it is the organisation that is the loser when potential revenue is left on the table. What I term Selfish Relationship Syndrome (SRS) is the result of this competitive dynamic.


SRS becomes an issue when a staff member exhibits certain characteristics of relationship protectionism—opinions, emotions, or behaviours—with a key stakeholder. The staff member will be of the opinion that only they know the next best move in progressing the potential support to a sponsorship or philanthropic gift, and you will notice that:

  • other ideas are not typically embraced
  • information is withheld from the organisation’s database (this empowers the staff member because they know something about the potential supporter that others do not)
  • there is resistance to other members of the organisation meeting privately with the stakeholder (even if the staff members are professional and well-regarded)
  • answers are given on behalf of the potential supporter in a strategy meeting as if they know how the stakeholder would respond
  • visits or interactions with the potential supporter that are not recorded or shared among colleagues.

In the end, the staff member comes to believe they own the relationship.


Sometimes staff have good reason to be protective of their donor relationships. Often the rationale for SRS is the fear that something or someone at the organisation may do harm to the relationship or embarrass the organisation. When years of good work from a fundraiser or corporate sponsorship professional are undone by a team member, this incentivizes selfish donor relationships.

Similarly, risk factors can emerge when an organisation has a track record of previous miscues with potential supports. Not all engagement or cultivation scenarios go as planned and these hiccups often get repeated over and over at an organisation reinforcing cautious behaviour which can promote SRS.

If a member of the staff has any success in repairing a damaged relationship because of the historical blunders he/she will be rather protective of the relationship and will exhibit no shame in doing so given previous faults.


There are some businesses where a potential supporter may follow a staff member when they depart an organisation to go work for another, such as an accountant. However, this isn’t the case when it comes to philanthropic dollars or even sponsorships. Rarely, if ever, do donors follow a major gift professional to their next non-profit organisation and start donating to this cause.

Organisations need to prepare for changes to staffing. Fundraisers, and leaders, come and go. When a staff member leaves, often the organisation does a very poor job of a handover and this results in disengaged supporters moving their interest elsewhere. Building an institutional relationship is necessary for maintaining long-term major gifts, bequest consideration, or sponsorship opportunities.

There are ways to battle SRS and get teams, such as the philanthropic and corporate sponsorship teams, working together to produce a higher return for the organisation. You don’t need to create unhealthy competition.