Small is beautiful again

8 Dec

For years, a common philanthropic mantra for nonprofits has been to “scale up” for maximum impact. That strategy, extended out several years, implies a world with fewer, larger nonprofits working together to deliver some “maximum” level of impact. It implies a world of standardized approaches conforming to “evidence based” practice. It implies a world standing still, waiting for the right approach to solve problems.

Now, as the economy has unraveled around us, that viewpoint seems positively quaint. Why did we think that what didn’t sustain the globally-resourced corporate sector would work for nonprofits?

That’s why I was thrilled today to come across a year-old interview on National Public Radio with San Francisco based philanthropy consultant Lucy Bernholz. She was asked about new buzzwords in philanthropy, and her first offering was the word “micro” as in “making big ideas small”.

What a deja-vu insight! Scaling up is not our only option for efficiency. We already treat information as a social, constantly evolving, customizable good. We don’t try to find everything in one encyclopedic source. We’ve long understood the need to adapt and transform technology for different scales and types of operation. Why not be more purposeful at scaling down other big social improvement ideas so that they can be implemented at a small scale, quickly and easily?

What better strategy for sustainability than to make it something easy to sustain and adapt over time?  How could we measure progress in that kind of world? And wouldn’t it be rewarding to contribute to promising ideas over and over again?

You can find the whole interview transcript that inspired me here

-Kathi Jaworski