Going to scale without falling to pieces

There’s lots of focus in the entrepreneurship community about ”going to scale” or successfully growing a small business into a major player. Anyone who has experienced a rapidly growing organization has seen the tension — old methods and models fail to function at a certain volume of business, formerly tightknit organizational cultures fray at the edges, cash flow evaporates as service level rises before revenue comes back in.

The same ”scaling” challenges hold true for nonprofit arts organizations, where rapid growth can come for many reasons (moving into a new, fancy facility; receiving a major gift; hiring a new artistic leader with a bold vision; and so on). Smart managers realize (sooner or later) that they can’t run a larger organization just as they ran the smaller one. Instead, they have to balance the qualities that made them successful against the new control, staffing, and capital requirements of the bigger beast.

Nonprofit consultant Steven LaFrance explores this balancing act in his weblog on the subject. According to LaFrance and his colleagues, smart nonprofits need to balance seven capacities while increasing their scale, or risk coming apart at the seams:

  1. MISSION: Defining and Adhering to Core Mission. Clearly defining and adhering to the mission provides focus for decision-making and resource deployment during the scaling process.
  2. STRUCTURE: Balancing Control and Flexibility. Scaling, particularly when it entails organizational expansion, places great challenges on organizational and management structures. The challenge is to balance control with flexibility for innovation and impact.
  3. MODEL: Codifying What Works. Impact can be scaled more effectively by clearly articulating essential components of the model so that it can be more easily and faithfully replicated.
  4. CULTURE: Cultivating and Perpetuating the Culture. For scaling to succeed, organizations must cultivate and perpetuate during the scaling process those aspects of the culture–shared values, behaviors and norms–that are critical for mission achievement.
  5. DATA: Collecting and Using Data. The ability to gather and use data can be critical for informing important scaling-related decisions such as establishing needs in new issue or geographic areas, demonstrating the effectiveness of a model, setting priorities, and choosing strategies.
  6. RESOURCES: Connecting Fundraising to the Mission. Successfully-scaled social entrepreneurships are able to expand their resource base by viewing fundraising as a way to achieve mission and by finding ways to connect supporters to programmatic work.
  7. LEADERSHIP AND GOVERNANCE: Making the Right Decisions for Scaling. Leaders and boards are the agents that initiate and manage the scaling process. Strong leadership and governance means making sure the right decisions are made to foster greater mission achievement during what is often a period of rapid organizational change.

Of course, the larger question is whether to scale up at all. Sometimes the choice not to grow is the most powerful choice of all.

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