The word "Scalable" has become a mainstay of our workplace vocabulary. Its use is widespread both in for profit and nonprofit settings. I knew the word had reached a new level of trendiness when it was featured in a very funny article in The Huffington Post that appeared a few months ago called "10 Ways to Sound Smarter in Meetings". The sixth top suggestion was to ask "Will this scale?" no matter what you're talking about! Brilliant. The link for the article is at the bottom of the page (read it after mine of course!) I realized I wasn't even sure of the exact definition of the word. Was this an actual word or something we had all invented? Apparently, it is a real word with a formal definition as follows:
Scalability is the capability of a system, network, or process to handle a growing amount of work, or its potential to be enlarged in order to accommodate that growth.
Upon reflection, I realized that there were several situations where I was involved in projects where scaling - and the dollars that came with it - were more the end than the means. Naturally we all want to sound smart. But the next time you're considering the Big Scaling Question, it's worth asking yourself and your team a few key questions:
Will you raise more? In fundraising - and more specifically in event fundraising - we often find this notion that adding more (or scaling ) events will bring in more dollars. But too often the events we have in place become the end goal as opposed to the beginning of the donor cultivation process. We plan, work our tails off, hit our magic number and then we chill for for a few months. When we start all over, naturally we ask how can we raise more? And the answer is: Do another event. Then maybe another. But is it really better to launch another event as opposed to maximizing the quality and potential of the one in place? Are you really making the most of the new volunteers, donors and possibilities of engagement from the first? Maybe. Maybe not. But it's a question worth asking.
Will you save more? Well, this since post is about trendy stuff, might as well throw in that old classic - Synergies. If you've made the decision that another event, program or (fill in the blank) is what the doctor ordered, are there real savings - or synergies - that will go along with that decision? Can you keep the same level of staffing or will you need to hire additional staff for the new programs or events? Sometimes there are very clear synergies. For example, when you're doing multiple fundraising events, there are savings around creating and printing collateral, marketing and advertising. And these savings can translate into even more profitable sponsorship packages. Raising more or expanding your mission is great but doing it in a cost effective manner is absolutely essential.
and the winner is....
Does it really need to be scaled? Many times I've seen the #1 objective of a Strategic plan stated as "Our goal is to raise $5 million per year over the next five years. Or $1 million. Or some other number. Naturally, my next question is Why? Is $5 million the exact amount it will take to have the impact you want to have? Silence. Big Audacious Financial Goals are often another way of saying we want to scale. But have you considered Why you want to scale? Is it absolutely necessary to achieve your stated mission? If you're a community organization focused on delivering a specific service to a specific population and you're doing it well, what's the benefit of adding - or scaling it? I'm not discouraging you from being ambitious and thinking big. Just make sure you're growing for the right reasons.
PS: Here's that Huffington Article I talked about in the beginning. Check it out for a good laugh:
Huffington Post Article
Over the weekend, my wife I were having dinner with a couple and the husband had just joined the board of a small but growing charity. Our discussion turned to his involvement and his challenging task of helping them grow their board. He was equal parts excited and frustrated. "They've tried lots of ways to get others engaged but nothing seems to work", he lamented. If only we knew a celebrity that would get involved, he commented. I could tell we might be off to the races (a.k.a. Fantasy Land). This was starting to sound eerily familiar to conversations I've found myself involved in as both a board member and consultant to others. Before going too far down that road, I stopped and shared several ideas worth considering when trying to recruit strong, engaged board members:
No Celebrities Are Required: "Does anybody have a connection to Bill Gates or a celebrity?" is probably the most frequently asked question when the topic turns to seeking new supporters. If your organization has a true connection to either and they're committed to your cause, more power to you. But if you don't and none of your key connectors (board members, volunteers, staff etc) do either, time to move on. It doesn't take a celebrity to make the case for the great work you're doing. It takes committed, passionate individuals that have a true connection to the work you do. You just need to find them - they're out there.
Show Them Why Johnny CAN Read: We've all been there. There's a potential board member or donor we're eager to get on board and figure what better way than to pull on their heartstrings? We invite them to see the underfunded school (or the children that can't read, families without homes - the list goes on). I once heard this referred to as the "Johnny Can't Read" approach. A bit harsh for my taste but rather fitting. I'd suggest the opposite. Engage your potential board members with positive messages. Introduce them to the amazing teenagers that came through your program and can not only read but are graduating with honors. Show them the new housing your organization is developing. Use messages that speak to the power of your work and ability to create real solutions to problems.
Keep Looking and Get Creative: Board development takes work, creativity, follow up and follow through and patience. This stuff isn't easy but it can be done. This is an ongoing discussion and not a section of your board retreat that gets attention once a year. Creativity is key and can help drive you towards some wonderful surprises. I found an amazing leader by reaching out my top 100 Linkedin contacts with event management experience or an interest in endurance sports. I was incredibly fortunate to meet a future board member that had not only the skills but a genuine connection to the cause. This doesn't happen everyday but it does happen when you try new things and keep at it. So keep at it!
Enjoy the hunt...
Robert Grabel is the President of Nonprofit Now! You can find his posts here and at www.robertgrabel.com
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