Four Claims to the First Thanksgiving: What Competing Histories Teach Us About Nonprofit Cooperation

Megan Ritter, Vice President of Communications

We all know the story of the first Thanksgiving—celebrated in November 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, as Pilgrim settlers who’d arrived there seeking religious freedom gave thanks for a bountiful harvest.

In fact, at least four other spots scattered throughout the eastern half of the United States lay claim to the first Thanksgiving. Florida has the earliest claim, with a Mass and feast held in 1565 to celebrate the founding of St. Augustine. Texas stakes its own claim with a celebration in 1598 near modern-day El Paso. The inhabitants of a short-lived settlement in Maine feasted alongside a native tribe in 1607. And in 1619 – two years before the familiar Pilgrim celebration – Virginia settlers hosted a Thanksgiving feast at Berkeley Plantation on the James River.

So what can fundraisers learn from these competing claims?

  1. You’re not as unique as you think. The nonprofit world – and the inboxes of potential funders – are full of claims that each organization is “the one and only.” In fact, that’s almost never true! If you’ve spotted a marketplace gap or unfilled need, someone else, somewhere, surely has done the same.
  2. Your case is in the details. Each of the competing first Thanksgiving sites has a compelling argument in its own right. Florida confidently claims the earliest date. Hosted by a settlement that later failed, Maine’s provides a lesson in the difficulty of surviving in the wilderness. Meanwhile, Virginia notes that its celebration was spontaneous rather than by official decree.
  3. Friendly competition lifts us all. These four sites often engage in good-natured online sniping. They know, however, that each of their competitors brings something unique to the table in telling a more complete narrative, and that acknowledgment is both good manners and good business sense.

This Thanksgiving, when your family sits down around the table, impress them with your new alternative history—and next week, when you’re back at work, spend some time thinking about how your organization competes with others. Like the four First Thanksgiving sites, we can make one another better and stronger. From the AC Fitzgerald family, we wish you and yours a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

Megan A. Ritter serves as Vice President of Communications at AC Fitzgerald. She provides outstanding consulting services to her clients and develops donor communications pieces proven to get results.

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