Making big ideas small

21 Dec

In the recent “Small is Beautiful” post, I was all jazzed up about “making big ideas small” as a strategy for sustaining effective social change efforts. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how this actually works.  I’ve been scouring my own experience and that of other organizations to create a starting list of underlying practices. Here’s what I have so far.

  1. Determine what aspects of a project/service benefit by being centralized vs. decentralized, and decentralize the elements that improve by being sensitive to local differences. For example, franchising is an example of making a big idea small. The big idea is the business concept: through franchising, certain decisions and functions are done centrally at lower cost, while others are driven by the experience and judgment of the local franchisee.
  2. Make it easy for interested people to participate meaningfully on a small scale.  Ordinary people can invest small charitable donations in the same way as endowments do  through micro-endowment funds like the Hope Equity project. Simple computer programs that enable individual households to calculate and reduce their carbon footprint allow people to take local action around global climate warming.
  3. Build a network of small scale users and small scale producers. For example, community supported agriculture offers a wide variety of unique items in relatively small quantities as a strategy to address bigger issues of farm preservation, nutrition, energy consumption and food security.  The internet and its social networking capacity is an important tool for making connections easier.
  4. Observe how people behave and reinforce what works. Because people work around what doesn’t work for them, whether it be a consumer product or a social convention, we can learn from observing how people address the issues we hope to affect. The design firm IDEO bases its consumer product innovation on field-based observation: the nonprofit world now applies its design thinking principles to find less expensive, more effective ways to deliver services.

Well, that’s my start, rough as it is. How else can the principle of “making big ideas small” guide effective nonprofits?

-Kathi Jaworski