John at Duct Tape Marketing Blog has a post on "How to Beat the Wal-Marts" that has some good advice on how to take on a bigger (or any size) competitor: Be different. Do something they can't that consumers are willing to pay you for.
John illustrates his point with a bookstore that sounds a lot like one in my neighborhood. Instead of fighting the losing battle of price with the "Wal-Marts" of the world, the bookstore offers special services, like author readings, an email newsletter and a knowledgeable staff. It goes where Wal-Mart can't, and has built a thriving business with customers that are glad to pay a little bit more for their books.
What works at a small bookstore can work for a small(er) nonprofit too. At my nonprofit we compete (by not competing) against our rivals by using strategies they can't or won't execute.
All cause marketing is local. At least it should be for smaller nonprofits. Bigger competitors have regional and national aspirations. But who's working with the mid-size and small businesses in your area? Probably no one, or, more likely, someone who is disorganized and ineffective.
Ease their pain. Nonprofits hit-up businesses all the time. It's all about them and what they need, blah, blah, blah. Separate yourself from these bloodsuckers by focusing on how cause marketing can help companies boost employee and customer loyalty and drive sales. I view myself less as a fundraiser and more as a nonprofit business consultant who helps companies make and save money with cause marketing programs. When they succeed my organization gets paid. That's how you should get paid too.
If it's free, it's for me. Given the choice between paying for advertising or cause marketing, companies will choose advertising 99.9% of the time (for no other reason than that they are more familiar with it). Most companies don't even know what cause marketing is! Counter this by giving away the goods in exchange for a point-of-purchase program that allows customers to make a small donation to your organization. You'll land a new partner and raise ten times the money the company's donations committee would have given you.
Be yourself at your best. Why does the nonprofit world attract so many shlubs? It's like Appalachia out there. Poorly dressed, no presentation skills, bad teeth (just kidding, their clothes aren't that bad). Distinguish yourself from competitors by dressing, talking and brushing like the business people you're trying to woo. People buy from people like themselves. It's not a stretch: nonprofits are businesses too. Dress, think, talk and act like you work for one.
Stay top of mind. If you've done your homework, a good prospect is always a good prospect, even if they say "no". Stick with them. Update them on your projects, invite them to events, give them free stuff, congratulate them when they're in the newspaper (unless it's in the police log, then tell them you were arrested for the same offense), send them articles on things they enjoy. As Samuel Johnson said, "People need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed."
Let me stress: don't just add them to your mailing list so they get a bunch of crap they don't want and is all about you. Treat them like a friend, a partner, someone to whom you've taken a professional interest. This alone will go a long way in getting you noticed by someone who's probably only experienced the generic, big-box thinking of Wal-Mart.org.