Scale is Not the Enemy -- Part II

In yesterday’s post, I argued that the instinct to scale programs is not, despite wide-ranging concerns about the concept from nonprofit practitioners, the enemy. This is an important topic for PhilanthroMedia because, frankly, trepidation usually comes in response to donors who want to either scale initiatives they have helped launch or only to invest in programs that have the capacity to scale. In other words, if I may be so bold as to generalize, investments with the potential for national impact are valued more highly by some than those that only have the potential to benefit an individual community.

I’m not waving the flag for Walmart when I state my support for instincts that seek to gain maximum leverage for charitable investments. In fact, that is largely the topic with which this blog concerns itself. As someone who has spent most of my professional lifetime in the nonprofit sector, I’d like to state two personal examples for why I believe the trends described in yesterday’s post point the way to greater dollar-per-dollar impact.

Example #1: I ran a small (average $350k annual income) youth agency for years and know what it is like to raise money a nickel and dime at a time. I started there at $18,000 in 1988 and two days later, when the leading candidate for executive director declined the job, it was mine with a raise to $28,000. I was 26 years old and knew nothing about running a youth agency, nothing about the town to which I had just moved and nothing about fundraising. But they could afford me.

While we had much success over my eight-year tenure, inexperience coupled with inadequate resources meant that we sorely lacked basic systems and capacities. Even so, we never talked about merging with any other organization or shifting to do only what we did best (which was to run an award-winning, citywide teen newspaper and video program.) We assumed that what we did was by any means better than nothing so we limped along. And almost twenty years after I took the job, that agency is still scrambling each month to cover costs and to hold together an idea whose vibrancy, in this new media age, faded long ago.

Example #2: In 1996, I left my position as head of the Children, Youth and Families Initiative at the Chicago Community Trust, to move off the grid (only felt like it) to a tiny little town in Southwest, Michigan. Almost immediately I was roped, by the people of that fair town, on to a planning committee of individuals who were trying to launch a Boys and Girls Club (BGC.) Great folks, great instincts, but together we couldn’t plan our way out of a paper bag.

Before I joined, they had already identified a drafty old barn for the site and decided that they wanted to become an official member of that national organization in order to secure the wide range of resources that came with membership. I remember the BGC rep coming to several of our meetings to assist us with meeting their requirements. I recall how we could never quite pull it all together to gain buy-in from the diverse constituents needed to ensure the club’s sustainability. Eventually the initiative failed and the club never came to fruition. You could blame the BGC for their requirements, put in place to ensure consistent quality across their efforts to scale. Or, as I did, you could recognize that if we had gone ahead with the money we might scrap together, the club would have failed just a little further down the road. But fail it would have.

Obviously, since I am a consistent variable in both examples and others that come to mind as I write, it is possible that I am the one to blame. But neither I nor any individual is powerful enough to overcome the, in many ways fundamentally flawed, dynamics of the nonprofit marketplace. And yet we try. We give our heart and soul to keeping precious, local, small, organic social entities alive in the bloody red ocean of competition. While I don’t fault those who do, after a couple of decades of experience, I now gravitate to those that have the potential to gain momentum and the resources that come with it. While I love a start-up as much as the next social entrepreneur, my start-ups now start up with an eye toward that momentum.

Scale may not be the holy grail, but it ain’t bad.

P.S. In response to yesterday's post, Bruce Trachtenberg wrote: "Obviously we need scale, especially to get those programs that work in more places where they can do more good. But we also have to guard against spreading too thinly. For more "real life" adventures of what it's like for youth serving organizations to attempt to go to scale, readers might enjoy this Bridgespan report.

Susan Herr

Posted at 6:57 AM on July 20, 2007 | Print