True confession: I was not always a popular feminist, even my feminist peers. I didn’t believe that just because we wanted to be regarded as equal to men—we already knew we were, if not superior to—that we had to be the same as men. We didn’t need to mimic them, working ridiculously long hours, barking orders, wearing suits, being cut-throat; but rather, we could be just as successful if we played to our strengths and did things our way, bringing our values and styles when we broke the gender barrier and glass ceiling. But I was not heard.
I’m feeling the same thing all over again as nonprofits try to become more business like. Absolutely, we must become more business like; but that does not mean we have to mimic everything businesses do.
It seems that a golden rule of business is that bigger is better: everyone wants a bigger share of the market, a bigger bottom line, a bigger workforce. Downsizing an organization is seen, at best as a negative, and at worst as a huge failure. “Oh,” you hear the disdain dripping on every word, “you only have 20 employees.”
And so it appears that nonprofits want to do the same: become bigger for the sake of becoming bigger and not because it will help them do a better job at delivering their missions. And that scares me. I recently attended a conference where nonprofits with 10 to 15 employees were described, rather disdainfully, I might add, as small. What? The typical nonprofit has five to eight (notice I did not say “only five to eight”) employees and a budget under $750,000. And so what if they are small? Does that devalue their work?
A while ago, I listened to the staff of an organization struggle over the decision of whether to accept the offer of “buying” a free building. The conversation did not once address the question of how would having the building help the organization fulfill its mission. No, the conversation was all about how having the building would make them bigger. So what? Would it help them do better at the mission? Do they have the capacity to take care of the building? to use the building? When I asked the question of how the building connected to their mission, I got cold silence. They had no ready answer to the question, nor could they come up with any. But they were quite annoyed that I might have put a break on their opportunity to become bigger.
Just because the business world thinks bigger is better—perhaps because they can give a better return to their stockholders—that does not mean that measure will work for us in the nonprofit sector. Will our stakeholders be better served by our nonprofit being bigger? Perhaps in some cases that will be true. But in many instances, size will have nothing to do with how well a nonprofit serves it constituents.
In the nonprofit sector, let’s understand that size is not the measure of the organization; how well an organization serves its true mission is.