Scaling and Ecology


Written by Frances Kunreuther

Every couple of years, new phrases suddenly permeate the air. In the nonprofit sector right now there is “scale”, “collective impact”, “network”, “movement”, “evidence-based”, “transformation” and of course ”innovation.” These terms can be deeply meaningful or they can be maddeningly empty depending on the circumstances. But how they are adopted (and applied) has real implications on people living in neighborhoods and on the organizations that are there to help, serve, work with, and/or organize them.

One of the terms that used to be in vogue – one I miss – is the ecology of organizations.  The reason it appealed to me is it indicated that not one idea, group or approach alone would change the circumstances of a community or society. Maybe I liked it because it countered the business argument that bigger is better. Small groups and local efforts had an important place in the ecology frame; but it didn’t exclude larger or more geographically diverse formations. And it assumed that not every group lived forever, that new groups would sprout up, and that ideas came from those closest to the community but that cross pollination made those ideas stronger.

These days I feel the small organizations in communities are simply going away – that there is little concern for the local ecology.  Small, local organizations are no longer the testing ground for new ideas or respected for the knowledge they bring. More and more, these groups are seen as vehicles to distribute the ideas of larger statewide or national formations that may offer them a small amount of money to participate in their networks. But in fact they are slowly being starved. It’s not hard to see why funders – especially national funders – like these larger groups. A more syndicated model is easier and can provide in one grant far more reach, and there is one group that takes responsibility rather than many who may be hard to follow and evaluate.

But here are three worries this trend raises.  First, the smaller community-based groups that often (though of course not always) have local relationships and understanding, can be completely invisible when larger groups come in. And these smaller groups can’t possibly compete with larger formations that have access to money and power. Second, local affiliates of larger groups are often constrained by a model and goals that may or not reflect what is needed locally. And third, there is an assumption in this model that local groups and communities can’t solve problems or have relevant ideas. Of course, there are examples where the national builds up the local community groups offering needed information and skills; but this happens less often than we would hope.

Statewide, regional, and national groups are important resources and help ideas and actions go to scale. A model that supports them AND local groups helps the ecology to survive. Without support of the local community efforts, going to scale can be like an invasive species killing off and taking over what is there and forgetting that there was once beauty in a system that has now gone to seed.

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