Scale, For Better or For Worse

Nonprofit trends – and their associated jargon – seem to come in waves. Given the disparate and atomized nature of the sector, it’s striking that new notions and terms fall into place so rapidly. I think of that viral video of starlings flying in unison. Somehow, magically, we all start moving in the same direction – perhaps because we don’t want to be left behind. Or eaten by hawks.

One of the hottest bits of jargon the last few years is “scaling up,” or “going to scale.” As with a lot of nonprofit speak, the obsession with scale seems to have originated in the foundation world. (This is consistent with the nonprofit sector’s golden rule: “Those who have the gold make the rules.”) A few years ago, some influential foundation leaders seem to have decided, in whatever way they decide these things, that in order to have their dollars go further, they should focus their grantmaking on programs that can be scaled up. Other funders began to spout the same idea.

What’s scaling up? Well, say there’s a program that each year teaches 100 inner city teenagers to be auto mechanics. It does great work, and each year helps 100 young people develop a useful and well-paying trade. If the program’s plan for next year and the year after is to continue teaching those 100 kids a year, foundations will not be terribly interested, no matter how effective that small program may be. On the other hand, if the agency described plans to double the number of teenagers each year for several years, or, better yet, to franchise the concept so that in five years there would be 500 program participants in each of ten cities, then the foundations would be thrilled. The organization would be going to scale, reaching a much larger number of students – and it would be deemed exciting and worthy of support.

Who could oppose the idea of good programs reaching more people? Certainly not me, but I have some problems with the whole scale obsession.

1)     Some programs are more scalable than others, and some extremely effective efforts are not scalable at all. In many cases, the very smallness and intimacy of the program are big reasons for its success.

But if scale is what foundations want, then scale is what they get, and organizations that are doing a perfectly good job serving a small, local population suddenly feel a need to draw up plans, real or faux, for significant expansion and/or (more jargon here) “replicability.”

2)     The focus on scale overlooks the very real good already being accomplished by nonprofits. To hear foundations describe it, what small nonprofits are doing every day holds no interest to them unless the groups are trying to go to scale and reach far more people. They’re not “moving the needle,” to slip into yet another nonprofit cliché. But these organizations are certainly having an impact on their current clients. That should count for something. (It obviously matters to those clients.)

3)     There’s a class-based double standard.

Think for a moment of the elite institutions of the nonprofit world, those that for the most part serve the wealthy and the fortunate. At those institutions, there’s absolutely no expectation of going to scale. In fact, not going to scale is part of what makes them so special. At Phillips Exeter Academy, for example, parents are eager to spend over $45,000 a year so that their children get a top-flight educational experience, with small classes, inspiring teachers, excellent facilities, and intensive support systems. There is no hue and cry for Phillips Exeter to set up satellite campuses, or to reach 2,000 or 20,000 kids a year instead of 1,000. Not only is that concept absurd, but it would essentially undermine the Exeter brand: the specialness of an elite boarding school.

Similarly, is there pressure for the Metropolitan Museum to scale up? The New York Philharmonic? For these and other elite institutions, the goal is excellence, not scale.

No, it is left to small social service organizations, which have barely enough resources to sustain themselves, to go to scale, to spread their concepts and methods to a larger population, perhaps to new cities. In most cases it’s an absurd idea. Yet these small nonprofits do what small nonprofits do: they recognize the immense power imbalance for what it is, and when the foundations lay out the agenda, they at least pretend to carry out what the funders demand.

4)     If you really want to move the needle, you need governmental action. To rely on nonprofits to do more than nibble around the edges on major issues is unrealistic.

A small nonprofit, or even hundreds of nonprofits, cannot in and of themselves have significant overall impact on major social issues. Let’s take the issue of hunger. Food insecurity (i.e. hunger) in the U.S. has grown from 10 million people to an astonishing 51 million people over the last several decades. It’s a huge societal problem, and a public disgrace. A collection of nonprofit food pantries and food kitchens can become more efficient about assembling and distributing food, and they may get credit for “going to scale” by feeding more people for less money, but how can they possibly make a dent in this problem? That requires political will and action around public policy issues such as food stamp eligibility, minimum wage laws, tax policy, public education, and farm subsidies.

Nonprofit leaders: Speak truth to power. Let your funders know honestly what’s realistic and what’s not.

Funders: Understand that the nonprofit sector is in crisis, and that many excellent organizations are working extremely hard simply to carry out their basic mission. Don’t expect them to change the world on their own.

All of us: Work to reverse the notion that the nonprofit community, by itself, can change the world for the better. No matter how hard we work, how well-intentioned we are, and how brilliant our strategies, some issues are far too big for the nonprofit world to handle on its own. Government needs to play an appropriate and necessary role.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.              

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Al – again you have sounded a clear and persuasive call for us all to resist latching onto ideas that may sound good – and may, in some realms, be efffective — but which in practice may serve to undermine the excellent work that many nonprofits do. Love reading your blog.

  • Joanne Fitzgerald
    August 7, 2013 9:43 am

    Hello Alan,
    I love reading your posts, and was very interested in this particular post. As a fund development manager over many years, I’ve been thinking about a similar issue for quite some time… Why are non-profits expected to act like for-profit companies always seeking methods to grow and expand? If a non-profit is carrying out its mission well as is, then why is there so much continuous pressure from funders, Board and staff leadership, and the community to scale-up, grow, and embellish upon existing programs? Often, organizational missions are taken astray by this pressure, and budgets can grow unnecessarily. At the very least, it becomes a game of creative advertising to get a good deal of funding available today. This is upside down. If funders—and particularly foundation leaders—understood this, it would be of great benefit.
    I’d love to see you address this more,
    Thank you!
    Joanne Fitzgerald


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