‘How Do We Scale Our Impact With An Understanding of the Whole?’
An emerging conversation about the “human” side of scaling social enterprise

When it comes to scaling up social enterprise, there’s a lot more to be learned about doing this in a “human” way, says Vancouver social entrepreneur Vanessa LeBourdais.

This fits into the holistic approach the executive producer of DreamRider Productions is seeking.

She often sees overworked staff in social-purpose organizations, which does not serve the overall goal of social impact.

“These are (often) people who are working 80-hour weeks and not seeing their families,” she says. “If we’re involved in a paradigm shift towards a better society … exhausting our team members and trampling our families is not the way to get there.

“How do we scale our impact with an understanding of the whole value chain — including our personal lives and our health? That’s an ongoing question for me,” she says.

Vanessa was one of four panelists who participated in a live Google Hangout on Air on the subject of scaling up social enterprise Aug. 7.  She says she appreciated the framing offered at the beginning of the discussion, an excerpt from an exchange of comments following Robert Egger’s article The Folly of Scale.

“Some things are worth making bigger,” Robert writes. “But what I don’t dig is the universal thought that all programs need to show how they’ll ‘go to scale’.

“I’m just trying to get folks to stop for a minute and really think about what we need to grow, and how we grow it, before we send another generation into the trenches thinking that success means making the trench even bigger.”

In her own work as an artist running a social enterprise, Vanessa has encountered the idea that “bigger is better” a lot, often in a way that is not tied to the actual value of the work being done or the impact being made.

Instead it becomes conflated by excitement about “going national” and the status associated with bigness.

As Vanessa prepares to expand her interactive theatre programming on environmental education for children, she wonders how to ensure that the organization doesn’t scale “too much too fast.”

“How do I stay with this ease that I’m in right now, and still allow the effectiveness of what we’re doing to spread as far as it can? There is a balance point and how do you know when you’ve hit that balance point — to know, from here on it’s just going to be misery,” she says.

Another component of looking at scale holistically is organizational culture. At DreamRider, the social enterprise pays a lot of attention to its team culture.

Although the small team often meets virtually, with its members working from home, there’s a strong degree of presence, positive dynamic and collective growth when the team does meet.

“Assuming we do bring in more people, how do we retain that awesome culture?

That’s another question for scaling in terms of the human element.”

Heidi Lambie, who also participated in the Hangout, manages two ReStore social enterprises that support Habitat for Humanity. There are hundreds of ReStores across the country. In her experience, you can get bigger while also being local by building practices that make sense for a local culture.

In Calgary, Heidi manages a million-dollar furniture ReStore, but she recognizes that the successful practices used may not be amenable in Medicine Hat, the other location she manages.

“Medicine Hat is very community-based,” she says. “You don’t have the big corporate entities there, you actually know the owners of the businesses. It’s very down to earth and simple.”

The ReStore business model looks beyond the idea that the more stores they have, the more money comes in, the more successful they are.

“Scaling up like that doesn’t always mean better,” she says. “You have to (work) with what you have.”

Instead Restore looks at how quickly it can turn over restored furniture as a measure of success and a measuring stick for whether or not to scale its store or to scale processes instead.

A recording of the ENP Google Hangout is available here. It also featured consultants Abe Grindle of Bridgespan Group and David Upton of Common Good Solutions.

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A version of this article was originally written for the Enterprising Non-profits Canada news service. This repost, for which we received permission, follows the style guidelines of the original post. To learn more about generative newsroom options for your organization or community, please contact peter(at)axiomnews.com.