Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Big is Beautiful

I’m at the conference of Grantmakers for Effective Organisations (GEO) in Pittsburgh. There are over 500 leaders from the most progressive foundations in the States discussing how to better support nonprofits to deliver better outcomes.

GEO is an impressive outfit, and provides a space for timely conversations about how foundations should behave; including providing unrestricted core funding, getting smarter at reporting and evaluation, and treating nonprofits as partners not poor relations. Crucially they bring the voices of nonprofits into those conversations in order to have an honest dialogue.

I am running a session on how ACEVO’s work on Full Cost Recovery has changed funder behaviours and third sector capacity in the UK and we are working closely with GEO on how a similar campaign can be developed in the US.

GEO are also closely involved in the White House’s Social Innovation Fund and everyone is excited about a big announcement by President Obama expected in the coming weeks to kick the fund off.

This morning’s plenary session was one of those moments when you remind yourself how inspiring working in the third sector can be. The theme was “The possibilities and perils of scale”, but there certainly seemed much more in the way of possibilities than perils for the two speakers as they refuted the misguided notion that small is always beautiful.

Bill Strickland runs the Manchester Bidwell Corporation which began here in Pittsburgh, working to train people from disadvantaged communities in areas such as catering, pharmaceuticals, art, horticulture, design and many more. Bill spoke passionately about the recipe for his success, which included how the very high quality of the buildings and environments matters in order to raise people’s aspirations. The centre works because, as Bill says, it proves to the wider community that these poor people who have been considered a liability, are in fact an asset. “The only thing wrong with poor people is that they don’t have any money”, says Bill. In areas where fewer than 50% get a high school diploma, 95% of those who have been trained by the corporation graduate and then many work for the corporation’s various enterprises generating resources to expand the work.

Once the model was proven in Pittsburgh, and with the help of Jeff Skoll, Bill has set up centres across the country and has a goal for 100 in the US and 100 more around the world. “We’re not in the miracle business”, he says; “we’re in the hard work business”. Bill spoke at length about the leadership qualities needed to bring about this kind of scale. The expansion was not driven by a franchise model but rather by an affiliate model so investing in supporting the local leaders of the centres was crucial, and building local partnerships made all the difference.

Angelica Salas runs the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles and showed what scale means in advocacy. The task of fighting for better rights for immigrant communities in the US is huge, there are over 4m undocumented young people let alone all those of working age, but the achievements of Angelica and her colleagues are impressive. Mass protests were coordinated across the country in 2006. In 2008 they registered over half a million new voters. In March this year thousands of immigrants marched in DC to encourage Obama to live up to his promises on immigration reform and now a new $10m fund will support immigrant integration.

For mobilising immigrant communities you need both national impact and reach into what may be disparate immigrant communities. Coordination is what makes this happen and Angelica reports how every Tuesday she holds meetings with colleagues from groups across the country to discuss what needs to happen next. “For us to be successful we must be coordinated in LA, at the state level and across the country”, she says.

The conversation showed how scale is achieved in different ways in both delivery and advocacy organisations, but that scale – put simply – made things happen that couldn’t otherwise have happened.

For Bill the vision is that there are so many successful centres that public policy begins to change as a result because the evidence of success is overwhelming. Service delivery can only impact on policy on this way when it reaches scale, and this is just one of the things which is lost when we are blinded by the misplaced quasi-romantic notion that small is beautiful and big is bad.

Scale is a good thing in our sector. Let’s take the lessons from groups like Bill’s and Angelica’s and stop being afraid of it.

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