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May 28, 2015 - Kim Moore [see other posts]

Is Smaller Ever Better?

Is Small Ever Better?

A few days ago, a nonprofit executive said in my presence that a particular person's perspective was not all that important because he ran a smaller nonprofit than the speaker. The clear indication was that less ability was necessary to run a smaller operation than a larger one and this individual's experience would not be as valuable as the experiences of a manager in a larger operation. I suspect this type of thinking is widespread.

I am personally sensitive to "big is better" thinking. I grew up in a small town (population 400) in a low-population rural county (5000) and graduated with 11 others from a high school with 45 students. I then attended a small liberal arts college (700 students). My law career was slightly exceptional for my life in that I joined the largest law firm in Kansas; of course, "largest in Kansas" was not all that large -- then 30 lawyers. I have served as president of a small asset ($58 million) health philanthropy for 28 years. Small is sort of my thing. Some might say I have preferred to be a "large duck in a small pond..."

I would argue that small has a set of inherent advantages. It is generally true that smaller organizations can be more flexible. It is easier to turn a kayak than an ocean liner (real sea-going individuals can correct this perception, if necessary). My undergraduate alma mater has ventured more quickly into adult education and online learning than possible at some larger institutions which are just now moving into this environment. The closer working relationships of smaller groups should make team-building and mission focus easier. Small can deliver personal attention more often, and people seem to like personal attention. A local insurance agency trumpets on billboards that the owners of the business still answer the phones after 125 years of operation. Large churches which foster numerical and spiritual growth almost always develop small groups for members to create personal engagement.

The primary challenge to small organizations' obtaining excellence seems to be complexity. I marvel at the small business owner who handles human resource functions, government compliance, marketing, production, customer relations, finance/accounting and civic engagement. It is no wonder that many small business owners develop anti-regulatory attitudes; they reasonably can be overwhelmed by the uncertainty and expense of some government regulations. It is no less challenging for executive leadership of small nonprofits. They frequently are not able to afford a supportive administrative staff to handle small volume functions (HR, development, marketing, etc.) but must personally develop sufficient competency in each of these fields. Some things don't get done -- frequently, board development -- and no leader will be great in all these activities. However, the manager/leader who can create a compelling organizational vision and pay sufficient attention to the most necessary management details will succeed even in a resource-restricted environment. In my opinion, that rare individual is at least as capable as the manager of a large organization who has a differentiated staff handling many discrete functions.

My implicit theses of this post -- "small can be better" and "persons working for small organizations may be as capable as those in large organizations" -- do not appear to be the fundamental understanding of our society today. There is an undeniable trend toward scale being achieved primarily through larger organizations, versus combinations of smaller organizations. Consolidation has hit many economic fields: airlines, banks, grocery stores, health care systems and gasoline stations quickly come to mind. Much of this change has occurred through "de-regulation" and application of "laissez-faire market theory." The mega-church demonstrates how scale seems to draw "consumers" to real or perceived quality and away from venues where size may restrict offerings (and quality?) but greater individual attention is likely. In fact, small seems to need protection to survive (current UnCork Kansas controversy, for example).

Still, I remain a believer that the size of an operation does not determine its comparative productivity or its inherent or relative excellence. Likewise, people working in small organizations are not appropriately defined as less valuable or skilled, as was done in my opening example. There are people working in small business organizations and nonprofits who accomplish more -- absolutely and relatively -- than those in large organizations. Stereotyping based solely on size of assets, employment numbers or other scale measures is a very unwise activity. Small may be better.