I’ve enjoyed the philanthropy chatter of the past two weeks, the year-end reviews and the predictions for 2009. While nodding along with the jargon we’d like to see banished, contemplating pitfalls of new philanthropists, and musing on how Madoff worked out his whole scheme – I found myself focusing intently on two topics, scale and support.
What follows is neither a review or a prediction, but rather two topics that I hope we keep talking about this year.
“Going to Scale” – Can we readjust our eagerness for BIG?
For-profit franchises standardize their programs and operations so they can expand to new markets – just like Starbucks, McDonalds, and every box store in a suburb near you.
Non-profit programs have also been embracing this notion of “going to scale” by seeing what elements of their programs (and their operations) can be standardized and replicated. Habitat for Humanity and CityYear both expanded from their original demographics with success.
And because some organizations have reached beyond their original boundaries, donors have learned to view the replication of programs as evidence of a successful investment. But rarely is replication simply the end, even if donors see it as the goal. Even in business, replication and scaling up is not always successful – in the last year, we watched as Starbucks tried to undo its scale and get back in line with its original intent.
Similarly, not every non-profit program should be pushing for a bigger scale – whether that be in domestic or international contexts. If we continue to allow donors to define ”achieving scale” as a successful programmatic investment, organizations will continue to find themselves pushing to expand programs that aren’t ready or don’t need it.
Instead, what if we toned down our obsession with bigness and achieving scale – and focused on an organization’s potential to do well right where it is, as it is? Rather than focusing on the BIG, we emphasis the local, the small, the immediate – and pay attention to the resources needed to strengthen the whole. (Sounds very climate change debate-ish, right?)
Support – Look beyond the program?
In the past few months, it has been uplifting to listen to the many voices advocating for the maintenance (and increase) of operating support for non-profit organizations. While donors have traditionally shunned administrative costs in their philanthropic giving, often equating lower costs with greater success, many are now learning that the strength of an organization is just as, if not more, important than the programs it runs.
Support – for staff, for development, for electricity, for culture, for paper, for salaries, for health care and on and on – is rarely questioned in the business world. Yet, we ask our non-profit counterparts to rely on “their passion” as an excuse to undercut all of these necessary elements of support.
A strong organization is more than its star program and is more than its bright leader – and now, we have this opportunity, this economic downturn, to examine how we have been treating scale and support within the non-profit sector. Perhaps we will find that small is not bad and that strong organizations are good.
2009 is the right time to reflect on the philanthropic excitement of the past few years to ensure that we are still enjoying what we have created – and to improve the arguments we have been making, no matter how big or small.