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Should “going big” and ‘going small’ be in conflict?

Posted by shubha

(Guest Post by Larry Fox, SVP International Board Member and SVP Portland Partner.)

The traditional SVP model relies on a series of highly engaged investments that might potentially scale to solve major issues. It is a very hopeful strategy that attracts many people because it is close to the action  and very fulfilling to the heart. And it does verifiable good work with great and wonderful organizations.

A growing perspective across the SVP network is that the SVP model has even greater potential to effect bigger, faster, and more sustained change by being more goal focused and working collectively with community players.

But the question is: can our model do both or are they at odds with one another. And if we do try to transform from small to big, what are the challenges?

Here are three lessons from our Portland experience with “pushing the model”.

  • “Go big” and “go small” need not be mutually exclusive. Au contraire.

Our traditional model was characterized as “go small”– a series of individual investments with the hope of scaling. “Going big” implied ambitious goals, heavy hitting collaboration, and big changes. The problem with the notion of “go big” is that it is easy to imagine that it excludes all those partners who are in it for the hands on, up-close experience. It sounds more like high level negotiations among key community stakeholders in government, business, NGO’s etc and less like investment committees and lead partners.

My view is that the long run success of a “big” goal and strategy is both initially best served and in the long run dependent on a blended model of small and big.

While it may be possible for big things to get done through the initiatives of a few influential people, sustained efforts to make fundamental changes in the conditions of a community requires organization–visible, credible, solid, and therefore sustainably influential organization. Size and effectiveness and influence matter in the arena of sustained social change.  But to grow, you have to attract people to the cause, and most people are attracted to tangible and practical things that they can readily understand and feel. In SVP, these are the small unique investments we make that effect clear, important, and moving differences in people’s lives–investments that speak to both the mind and the heart. We attract “mass” because we offer fulfilling opportunities for individuals to engage with those we help.

Further, each partner attracted to SVP comes with an entire network of their own, bringing with them exponential potential for growth. With aggressive recruiting, this potential can be capitalized on.

Thus begins a virtuous cycle: Engaged capacity building attracts partners and their network potential; partner growth means the ability to invest more; more investments means more visibility (even in advance of impact); more visibility/impact means more credibility; more credibility means more potential influence with other key stakeholders in a wider social arena.  Rinse and repeat.

However, while going big in a sustained way (I believe) rests on the success of going small, it also requires a step that isn’t inherent in our traditional model:  strategic collaboration with other community stakeholders.

But here again, getting into a meaningful collaborative effort doesn’t just happen by selling hopes and promises. We need to be able to point to our ability to get things done effectively — a track record.  Lots of successful investments, and in particular, lots of successful investments that strategically amplify one another,  serve as the credible track record that gets SVP to the table in community collaboration.  Conversely, if we try to go big before establishing our credibility and reputation for reliability, we risk being dismissed before we get started.

  • When pushing the potential of the model, don’t neglect your roots.

In Portland, when we made the initial decision to work in collaboration with the community (for collective impact), we gave that notion a lot of air time. Additionally, because of our new focus, we delayed our investment cycle in the hopes of becoming more strategic as we learned more about the issues (very naive as it turns out). Both the shift of air time and the delay of routine behavior  led to a fair amount of confusion, and confusion led to some disenchantment. The lesson: as you introduce new ambitions and activities, DO NOT NEGLECT THE “OLD”. HONOR YOUR ROOTS. EMPHASIZE CONTINUITY.  Honor familiar activity even more than usual as you introduce new things.  Give it air time and don’t alter the current rules and behavior without really good reason.

  • Don’t “go big” on the cheap. You have to pay to play.

If you are going to “go big” by growing both your traditional “capacity building” volume and your collaborative involvement with community stakeholders, you will need more staff. Lesson two: INVEST IN YOURSELF. The need for committed, dedicated resources to staff the effort will quickly surpass the limits of volunteer availability.  To invest in staff, you will need either to get supplemental funding from outside (though this is a problematic long term solution); and/or overcome the “low overhead/ more dollars to the cause” bias of traditional philanthropy.  You may need to invest in the size, capabilities, and training of staff to do more.  And you made need to invest time (and therefore money) to make changes in your routine processes to accommodate new demands.

All this is an investment in “overhead”, which might even impact the amount of money available (temporarily) to invest in investee. This can be a difficult mindset change that will require educating staff, partners  and supporters on the potential of the SVP model to deliver significantly more value than it spends on increased “overhead”.

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