‘Scaling up’ is not always a good thing for an organization, and limits are not always bad.
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of hearing Samuel May, co-founder of the Maine Harvest Credit Project, share his story about starting a specialized credit union focused on the small farms and new food economy in Maine.
Like many of us in the Philanthropy Daily world, Sam was keenly aware of the value of localism in philanthropy and is now neck-deep in a “localist” philanthropic initiative in Maine.
The goal of MHCP union is to “fill critical financing gaps facing this sector” by improving “access to larger loans with longer durations than are [currently] readily available.” Sam and his co-founder Scott Budde—both sons of Maine—noticed the growing local food economy in Maine, but soon learned that the biggest factor inhibiting more growth is difficulty in acquiring loans, especially land acquisition loans. The reason behind this is not bad ideas or inexperienced farmers, but instead a hesitancy on the part of big banks to invest in small, local farming. The MHCP, then, steps in as a local resource specifically committed to making savvy investments in the local food economy.
What will make the credit union thrive and its initiatives successful is Sam’s deep involvement in the local farming community in Maine. He will be able to make wise investments in individuals seeking loans because he knows the landscape, the economy, the community they’ll be working in. Not a distant, faceless bureaucrat making decisions based on sterile formulae, Sam and his business partners are active members in this community—real citizens, with real knowledge of the specifics of the farming community in Maine.
Now, if Sam has the success I think he’s going to have, then, needless to say, this is a project that we don’t want to see isolated to southern Maine, its growth hindered by the extent of Sam’s local knowledge and social network. And that brings me to my main point: the essential difference between scalability and replicability.
When Sam was telling us about his work with Maine Harvest, he shared a story about a conference call with a foundation he was soliciting for a grant (as a 501(c)14, a credit union requires $2M in donations to incorporate). On the call, Sam shared his mission and vision, the impressive work he’s put in, the success he’s seen so far, and so on—and surely he inspired confidence in his audience.
Encouraged by this exciting project, the foundation staff asked a question we’ve all heard before: is it scalable? Though not always a problematic question, to ask about ‘scaling up’ betrays, in this case, a profound misunderstanding of the project.
Not only the success of the project (which could be measured in so many ways) but the sheer point of the project relies upon local boundaries. To ‘scale up’ is to undo the project, to change what precisely this thing is.
Maine Harvest is, inevitably and essentially, limited by its commitment to the local food in economy in Maine. It must be understood, though, that this limitation isn’t a bad thing. Too often a ‘limitation’ is seen as an impediment, an obstacle to be overcome by someone with enough vision and competence. Surely some limitations can and should be overcome—this is not a manifesto for provincialism—but limitations and boundaries are also necessary for recognizing something as the sort of ‘something’ it is—and it is in realizing and appreciating limitations that a thing flourishes.
Let me be specific. Maine Harvest is limited by the reasonable local knowledge of its staff and board. If they understand and respect this, then the credit union can flourish and be a real asset to the Maine farming community, making investments where they can and should make investments, and turning down investments that they ought to. If, on the other hand, they see this limitation as a hurdle to be overcome—rather than a healthy boundary to operate within—their work will become watered down and their investments increasingly irresponsible the further they move away from real knowledge of the people or place in which they’re investing.
Scaling up, then, is not in the cards for them.
But that doesn’t mean Sam’s vision and hard work must be siloed in the Maine farming community, never to help another soul. While the project cannot be scaled, it can be replicated—and this is a crucial difference. If another fellow, in another farming community, wants to try the same thing, he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. The tactics, the legal knowledge, the data that Sam and his team have—this can all be shared, generously, with folks all around the country. They can replicate MHCP in their towns, relying upon their knowledge of their place.
This doesn’t mean that scalability is a bad thing. I work with and have seen plenty of organizations that have scaled up well or should try to scale up. What is important, though, is that we are careful to distinguish between scaling and replicating. We need to have the attentiveness and discernment to see which projects can be scaled and which can be replicated. And we should be sure not to scoff—whatever our preference—at either one.
Instead, we should clearly identify the delimiting factors that make this project or organization what it is, and then operate—indeed, flourish—within those boundaries.