Kathie de Nobriga

In the last 15 years or so, I have worked as a consultant to many nonprofit organizations as they undertake strategic planning, and if there’s one mantra I repeat, time after time, it’s “bigger is NOT (necessarily) better.”

Everything in our culture tells us otherwise: to children we approvingly coo, “look at how big you’ve grown!” To youth we say, “when you’re big you can do what you want…,” and so on. Size is equated with success: big houses, big cars, big everything—livin’ large.

Of course growing bigger is not always healthy: witness Hummers and cancer, both products of unbridled growth.

The pressure to grow organizational budgets and programs is unrelenting, but I think it’s a crass and easy measurement of success. So I’d like to speak for staying small, for finding a sustainable and healthy size. Growth then can be measured by impact, how much difference you can make in a community, how deeply your organization is connected to the tapestry of social order, to what degree your organization can work collaboratively with others. What if we said to ten-year-olds, “wow, look at how wise you’ve become!” ?

My thinking about this subject is influenced by the work of Margaret Wheatley. In her book, Leadership and the New Science, she posits that change happens in more than one way. The way we are most familiar with is cause-and-effect: I do one thing, and something else happens as a result. Often the ‘doing’ is made more effective by mass, weight, velocity, i.e., size—tangible measures of existence.

But there are other ways that things happen in the world, through the somewhat mysterious action of energy in a field, of hard-to-trace, often-invisible forces. This world of quantum physics has shifted the way I think about action and response, about effectiveness and change.

While we do live in a world that’s governed mostly by cause-and-effect, I like to leave room for the possibility that we can make impact in the world by working energetically, with intention, with a deep understanding of our connectivity, and an expanded awareness of that butterfly flapping its wings in China.

That’s not to say that if you have a good idea, and the stars are in alignment, that you shouldn’t “grow to scale.” But I’d have to ask: are resources in place to sustain the larger endeavor—and not just for today, but for years to come? And at what cost?

Will growing larger shift your organizational culture and perhaps jeopardize the very attributes and qualities that attracted people to you in the first place? Do the structures you’ve built and refined over the years have the capacity to handle a greater burden?

Can you expand or grow those structures in a way that keeps the integrity of the over-all institution?

Do you run a risk of diluting your work by spreading yourself too thin?

Will the quality stay high, the values intact and the work rewarding?

Will you be duplicating the work of other, perhaps smaller and less-resourced, organizations that are effective in their niche?

If you can answer these questions (and I’m sure there are others), then, by all means, scale up, up, up. But don’t make the assumption that bigger is always better….sometimes it’s just bigger.

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