If Small Farmers Produce More, What About Small Organizations?

mother jones.gif In a compelling new article from Mother Jones (March/April) entitled “Reversal of Fortune”, Bill McKibben joins the growing chorus of leaders speaking to the fact that our planet can no longer sustain growth for its own sake. As an example, he points to the surprisingly radical notion that it is small farms, not technologically-fueled, mega farms, that actually produce more food per acre:

We assume, because it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, that industrialized farming is the most productive farming…Yet the opposite is true…If you are one guy on a tractor responsible for thousands of acres, you grow your corn and that's all you can do—make pass after pass with the gargantuan machine across a sea of crop. But if you're working 10 acres, then you have time to really know the land, and to make it work harder. You can intercrop all kinds of plants—their roots will go to different depths, or they'll thrive in each other's shade, or they'll make use of different nutrients in the soil. You can also walk your fields, over and over, noticing…

The Third Sector has also widely adopted the notion that bigger is better. This was powerfully articulated in 1997 by Lisbeth B. Schorr whose seminal book, “Common Purpose: Strengthening Families and Neighborhoods to Rebuild America” described the challenges of taking winning youth programs to scale. These days, “scalability” is a topic widely discussed by donors and foundations.

But what if McKibben’s comments suggest a new shift away from the assumption that bigger is better in our sector as well? After all, it is the “small guys and gals” who collectively give 90% of all charitable dollars. What if his words are also lovely metaphors for the seemingly magical processes that guide human and community transformation when one has the time and space to “intercrop all kinds of plants that go to different depths, recognizing those that thrive in the shade, and making use of different nutrients?” What if small foundations and small nonprofits, which have time to really “know” the land of their communities, are fundamentally positioned to produce more impact?

Local nonprofit leaders who have argued this point for years have been largely outgunned by arguments about cost-efficiency. But in an age where small is the new big, times they are a’changin’.

Tim Walter

Posted at 6:00 AM, Apr 23, 2007 in Scaling Philanthropy | Permalink | Comment