Thinking Small and the Role of Nonprofits

Thanks to Michele at the Bamboo Project for a great post that got me thinking more and more about thinking small.

I’ve just been having some thoughts about organization growth.  If a nonprofit is not growing, it is considered to be stagnant.  If it’s shrinking, it’s failing.  A growing organization can serve a growing number of people.  Moreover, the bigger the organization is, the more funding it has coming in, making it more stable.  Bigger is therefore always better.  So I’m led to believe.

Tanker and Tug, photo by ccgd on Flickr
Tanker and Tug, photo by ccgd on Flickr

It’s just that with any big operation, be it a government’s military, a University, or an organization, it turns into a complex machine.  The inputs get farther and farther separated from the outputs as workers specialize; the grants and funding aspect in particular takes on a life of its own, and it builds up some serious momentum and stability to keep on going.

To my eye, there are a few major weaknesses in this plan.  The first is that a large operation is much more difficult to change quickly.  The second is that the specialized workers easily lose sight of the big picture.  The third is that more funders have more influence over what the organization does and how.

Maybe I’m a control freak.  Maybe I’m young and foolishly impatient.  Maybe I’m using a poor metaphor when I state that I would rather captain a skiff than a tanker.  I know a tanker holds more people, but that’s another thing, and maybe the crux of it for me when I think about it: you notice if someone falls out of the skiff.

3 thoughts on “Thinking Small and the Role of Nonprofits

  1. I didn’t think about applying the metaphor to organizational growth, but that makes a lot of sense. To me, being stagnant should mean “we’re not making a difference anymore,” not “we’re not growing bigger.” In fact, I’d argue that we should be looking at how we can do great things through leaner vessels, which offer benefits of flexibility and maneuverability that aren’t available through larger organizations. And as you point out, you notice when someone falls off the skiff.

    Great post!

  2. At a previous non-profit job we looked at Jim Collins book, Good to Great. I think he would say that an organization needs to be getting their mission right and focus on their goals – not necessarily growing for growths sake. He would agree that bigger isn’t always better and some of the great businesses became great by shedding some of their side businesses that didn’t build off their mission.

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