SCALING OUR IMPACT
The following is the second of a three-part excerpt from one chapter in The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur, a book that provides 21 useful essays about what it takes to build a career as an impactful entrepreneur, plus additional commentaries from several entrepreneurs.
Unless you’re a fish or a snake, what’s so great about achieving scale? For entrepreneurs, the task of scaling our social enterprises (or not scaling them) induces heartburn.
Entrepreneurship calls us in the direction of big, brash, system-disrupting, system-stopping, system-innovating solutions. Without growing our social ventures, without moving our careers up the ladder of professional success, without achieving economies of scale, without becoming big enough to be seen by funders and journalists, without a ‘scalable model’, are we doing enough? Are we reaching our full potential as changemakers? If our programs are small in size and stature, do you and I matter?
To give the notion of scale its due: we are in an urgent fury to achieve system-wide, broadly-reaching social justice. We take it personally that a billion people can’t drink clean water. We take it personally that 29,000 children die every day from poverty. We take it personally that our globe is getting hotter. We take it personally that women are abused or sexually-trafficked.
That 2.5 billion people don’t have basic sanitation. That wars are the macho solution for government officials who don’t fight or die in them. That, around the world, on this very day, 27 million people are enslaved. The internal moral pressure to do more, get bigger, reach greater numbers and forestall total environmental disaster weighs heavily on our hearts—and in our organizational planning.
Thinking big is a time-honored tradition. In business: economies of scale mean greater efficiency, lower prices and higher profits. In government: scale means inclusiveness, protecting the rights of every citizen and participatory decision-making. In ecological terms: water and air ignore man-made borders, so comprehensive, scaled environmental action is the only way to save the planet.
At the other end of the scale (so to speak), Tiffany Persons articulates the anti-scale rationale. Tiffany is the Founder of Shine On Sierra Leone, an educational and economic development program. After growing her program, enlarging its programmatic reach and achieving international recognition, Tiffany hit the brakes. As she tells it, “I asked myself how I was feeling about how big and how fast we were growing. It hurt my heart to realize the people that I was working with didn’t feel part of the change. What are we really changing if the people we are working with don’t feel connected? I was sold on the idea of scale, but now I am the anti-scale. I’ve decided to focus all of my energy and all of my love into one community.”
Amy Paulson, Co-Founder of the Global Gratitude Alliance, adds: “In community development, small is good. Scale forces us to look at people as issues to solve, not as individual humans with complex and unique needs. Scale brings up many other difficult questions, like what metrics really make sense, not for our donors, but for the communities we serve? How willing are we to forgo quick wins for long-term, messy and complex sustainable change that can often take decades or generations? Does our desire to define scale as volume, rather than impact, represent another form of colonialism?”
For entrepreneurs, the important thing is progress towards social justice—not organizational size, geographic coverage or budget. “Can you really help everyone?” asks Dylan Hrycyshen, Community Development Coordinator at a Canadian small business incubator. “Tell me what your product or service actually does, and skip all the fluffy language about being the most socially-conscious provider. Stop scaling before your idea becomes a [reality]. It’s about the real way your service improves lives within your community. Impact is about connection, and that doesn’t happen when scaling is the objective.”
Different entrepreneurs think about growth differently. If our social venture is a product solution, like solar lights or treadle pumps, then growth might mean wider distribution to realize economies of scale. If our thing is social services, like health care or education, the more people served, the better—provided that our touch is deep, tender and life-affirming. If we stand in opposition to political corruption and the denial of civil liberties, then turning the gears of government more humanely is our way of thinking about scale. Some organizations grow organically, and some do not; for example, some partner, collaborate or replicate. Some grow inwardly, scaling deeper into the communities to which they have committed their careers. The permutations are uncountable.
Obsessing about size and scale is fraught with growing pains, most often experienced as sharp pains in the ass.
As our social ventures get larger, they require new leadership skills, new internal systems and new budgets. “Anyone who has worked in an organization with more than a dozen employees recognizes institutional costs. Anytime you are faced with too many meetings, too much paperwork or too many layers of approval, you are dealing with those costs,” notes Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.
For some organizations and some leaders, scale becomes psychologically addictive, a gateway drug leading to mission drift. “The more he conquered, the more he had to conquer,” is a warning from the life of Genghis Khan, as reported by Jack Weatherford in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.
Not all programs are scalable. Not all projects can produce a profit. Not everything worth doing earns recognition, wins a competition, attracts fat cat donors or garners a foundation grant. For many worthy social justice organizations, chasing scale is unrealistic.
As change agents, we are caught in the crossfire between the change that we know matters, and the change that others think matters. Bigger is not always better. There is no best organizational size. An admonition from the co-author of The Communist Manifesto, Frederick Engels, comes to mind: “Quantity changes quality.” Getting and maintaining the balance is, well, a balancing act.
Trust-based change doesn’t miraculously materialize out of thin air, summoned into existence by our brilliant insights, penetrating analysis or compelling oration. It takes time, and small actions. And then, small actions beget larger actions. “Great work is often built on the mundane. Great cathedrals start with bricks, great paintings begin with paint and great novels start with words,” notes Michael Bungay Stanier in End Malaria. We celebrate our small victories—not just to nourish ourselves, but because small victories really do matter. They are victories.
To my way of thinking, entrepreneurship honors itself when it honors change agents at all levels of impact and in all spheres of human endeavor. Parenting, to pick one important example, is so commonplace that we tend not to consider it to be heroic social change work. But raising a child is investing in a better tomorrow just like any social impact investor or charitable nonprofit. Parents expend patient financial capital in the form of real money, real time and real mission commitment. Think of the social change gifted to us by the parents of Emily Greene Balch, Mahatma Gandhi, Dag Hammarskjold, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela. Single moms and dads—take note.
Because social progress is human progress, it’s really thorny to isolate what drives, or impedes, social change. People lead varied and complicated lives. Within the borders of our lifetimes, people laugh, dance, drink water, fall in love, fall out of love, sweat, work, fuck, raise kids, cook food, make music and make mistakes. We have dreams; we have nightmares. Deep inside the ecology of a community, so much of what happens is intangible, without clear causation. So much of what binds a community of people or creates economic opportunity is invisible, and hard to capture with measurable certainty.
“Few of us can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love,” avows Nobel Prize Laureate Mother Teresa. If we can’t do it small, can we ever hope to do it large?