The folly of scale – Robert Egger, L.A. Kitchen

First off, let’s be honest. For all its press and potential, social enterprise remains a novelty. While a few dynamic programs have “gone to scale,” our ideas have yet to stir the imagination of the public, nor challenged the way cities or states look at the path towards economic growth. This must change, and fast…and to do that, we, as leaders of this movement, must be brave enough to reevaluate some of fundamental ideas about how we will grow this movement. I think we need to begin with the flawed concept of scale.

I’ve written at length about my theories about the gender origins of modern philanthropy and the residual “economic/political sexism” that permeates the grant system, but in this article, I’d like to suggest that our pursuit of scale is also tied to an equally outdated, gender-born construct.

In the 1990’s I watched numerous Gen Xers flood into the nonprofit sector, eager to make change. I watched as they confronted the structural limitations of charity and were confounded by the flawed notion that low administrative overhead was the barometer of a “good” nonprofit. Vexed and bored by those limitations, many returned to school in pursuit of an MBA…and it was here that many began to hear about two new ideas – social enterprise and microcredit – and these ideas spoke to them and ignited their imaginations.

But, the business schools of America, then and now, teach what I believe is an outdated, and particularly male-centric concept of accomplishment…BIG = Success.

So, as this first generation of newly minted social entrepreneurs came roaring out into the economy, with righteous dreams of a new form of capitalism, they carried with them the flawed idea that the social enterprise movement would grow if they did.

This ego driven ideology isn’t bad, or wrong…it just didn’t scale the one thing required to see our movement explode; the idea of social enterprise itself.  It’s a radical idea that market forces could be used to diminish the need for charity.  Not by the way profits were redirected after the damage was done (i.e. grants), but by the way profits were made, via the wage employees were paid, the relationship business had with the community, and the power consumers had to choose between a Milton Friedman inspired business that exported profits, or a social enterprise, that re-invested profits into the community over and over and over again .

Sadly, so many of this first generation of social entrepreneurs got so lost in building their cathedrals, they didn’t take the time to sell the new, liberating faith. We were salespeople for our products, not proselytizers for Capitalism 2.0.

In the parlance of economics; we created supply, but not demand.

And while there are numerous ways we can drive demand, I’m going to suggest the one thing I believe is crucial; electing mayors who firmly embrace the idea of social enterprise as a key to economic growth and greater opportunity.

Think about it. Our commitment to good wages, green policies and local reinvestment make us a dream come true for any mayor, but particularly for those who would govern towns like Detroit, Fresno, Cleveland and Syracuse…cities rich in history, but where boarded up buildings and high unemployment bedevil growth.

This is where social enterprise is needed, but to get there, we have to step past the day to day of scaling our programs, and work together to help educate, and then elect these new partners…mayors who, on day one of their new administration, will look to BOTH traditional business and social enterprises and say, “Our city is ready, let’s GET IT ON.”

This is where social enterprise can, and should, flourish. This is where we can test new policies about contracts, reimbursement rates, tax credits and impact investing. This is where we can explore a new relationship with everyday consumers, who need the work and aspire to see their hometowns rise again.

This is also where we can challenge a new generation of social entrepreneurs to look hard at their vision for growth, and possibly redefine what success looks like for them. I’ve often said, “The biggest failure I’ve seen is my generation’s version of success.” Lets liberate both our movement, as well as a new generation, from the flawed notion that scale is key. It’s not…but it can open the door if directed in the right direction—City Hall.

– Robert Egger is a nonprofit leader, author, speaker, and activist. He is the founder and president of L.A. Kitchen, which recovers fresh produce and uses it to fuel a culinary arts and nutrition advocacy job training program for men and women coming out of foster care, and older men and women returning from incarceration. Robert founded the DC Central Kitchen, serving as its president for 24 years, and is the founder of Campus Kitchens Project and CForward.

This is part of REDF’s Accelerating Social Enterprise Growth blog series.

Let us what you think below!

  • Neha Gupta

    Amen! Demand is definitely needed. I love the idea of taking this to the political world and electing mayors who believe in social enterprise versus the old idea of creating a badge for businesses to use to identify themselves as social enterprises. It needs to be more mainstream than that. My hardest issue to deal with is that being a social enterprise isn’t enough–people care about quality first, social issues second.

  • David Davenport

    Sustainable = smart
    Effective = good
    Charity is not good business
    Good business can be loving, liberating and yes charitable.

    Too many of our nation”a nonprofit organizations – specifically human service organizations do not exist to solve challenges or liberate those in need. They exist solely to exist. Too often strategic level decisions are made to perpetuate existence not to build a movement and obliterate the barriers to a healthy and prosperous community with greater participation in its collective success

    Social enterprise drives forward a new economic model where the idea of more for you or others in need must mean less for me and other “producers” – the social enterprise economy lows for commerce and transaction where consumer and produce earn more collectively through the production of product, it’s sale and use. In that economy more for you doesn’t me less for me…commerce done in the name of liberating others provides a return on investment for all involved including all who benefit and sll who consume service.

  • Adlai_Wertman


    I certainly support the idea that an engaged political leader would be helpful in any social impact model. However, I must challenge you on the your assumptions about what is being taught at business schools and what kind of graduates we are producing. As one of the only business schools in the US with a comprehensive student-focused educational program in social enterprise (the USC Marshall Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab offering majors, minors, concentrations, certificates and now, the only Masters of Science in Social Entrepreneurship at a business school), I can certainly speak for ourselves that we do not in any way encourage or require scale for success. (In fact, we teach that people are helped one person at a time.) Both our undergraduates, MBA’s (as well is this years inaugural class of of Masters students), graduate with a healthy sense of humility regarding the problems they are looking to take on. BUT, they are also graduating with the same unique set of tools that has allowed the for-profit-only business sector to grow and flourish (while until recently, we were denying that skill set, for the most part, to the social impact industry). You know all too well that a social enterprise has to work as a viable business model in order to have any sustainability – let alone scalability of any sort.

    I also don’t understand why you believe that encouraging organizations to grow and have greater impact is a “particularly male-centric concept of accomplishment.” Are you arguing that wanting to grow and scale is a bad (or solely male) thing? If scaling isn’t important, why did you decide to take your extremely successful DC Kitchen model to Los Angeles. I assume you did it to help even more people – otherwise known as scaling. I know that when I ran Chrysalis, we always wanted to expand to new communities and pockets of homeless. Not because we were fooled by some notion of scale=success, but rather because we were made up of staff, volunteers, donors, customers and board members devoted to helping one more person change their life through a job.

    I spend every day of my life with brilliant and hard-working students who are fighting the rip tide of their classmates, media, community, peers and, often, parents, who want them to follow the traditional path you mentioned – make money without regard and engage in some modest philanthropy down the line.

    Instead, these students are taking all of the hard work they have done since grade school, all of the investment of money and time into a great education, and applying them to solving some of the world’s (and LA’s) most important challenges. Instead of heading to Wall Street, they are headed to Skid Row and Ghana. They deserve to be applauded for their courage and devotion to things beyond their own personal wealth creation. Lets not fall into the trap of using the broad and much too easy stereotype of evil, egomaniacal, sexist MBA’s, and thus run the risk of shaming them away from their idealism and desire to impact as many people as they can.

    • Robert Egger

      Adlai, my friend and colleague…thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      As you know, I’ve spent much time thinking about incentives (how to we help folks step forward and be brave), but also behavior…why do people or organizations keep doing things that aren’t in their best interest.

      For example….why do so many nonprofit leaders opt out of political engagement, when educating leaders or influencing policy could radically decrease demand for “services”? Why do people mimic boorish leadership styles when they attain power? Why don’t more CEO’s opt for a blended leadership style so that others can help drive the machine forward? Why do leaders still genuflect to administrative overhead metrics to gain financial support, when we know this is a wildly dumb metric?

      I’ve determined that many of our behaviors have their origins in social structure that are designed to control power and/or limit dissent. In many cases of control…I think sexism and race are often at the core. Because of my interest in this, much of my writing and speaking has explored why we in the sector continue to embrace ideas that limit or divert us for more pressing ‘battles”. Scale = success is at the top of my list.

      Here are a few examples of why I have come to question the dogma of scale….and it’s almost comically universal adaptation by nonprofit/social enterprise leaders and funders.

      The 1960-1975 pioneering generation of modern philanthropy (when we grew from less than 75,000 org, to close to 500,000) took the sector to scale…but did making more, or bigger, or even more efficient charities solve problems, or diminish need? You could make a case that social enterprise is growing because people reject the outcomes of charity going to scale.

      I saw many of these early leaders build bigger and bigger organizations…and when they retired, the board couldn’t afford to hire another leader, they had to hire a manager to keep the machine moving. Instead of the machine solving the problem, the problem became keeping the machine alive.

      I saw the odious metric of “pounds moved” drive food programs to serve more and more processed food/junk to poor people, so they could demonstrate that they were scaling up to feed more people…but they were creating even greater social health problems in this pursuit of “big”. Worse still, and entire generation of funders were led to believe that more food equaled fighting hunger.

      In DC, I worked in the “biggest” shelter in America….4,000 beds under one roof. It was a model that people applauded (and funded) in 1985 because it was going to scale…but now we know that scaling shelters was the exact opposite direction we should have pursued.

      Anyway…I dig some of your points. SOME things are worth making bigger. I love big art galleries. I love big parks. I’d like to see the bike culture grow, and the sharing economic model. I’d like to see big cures for ugly illnesses. 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 the that success means making the trench even bigger

      On a personal basis, I scale ideas, not programs…then make the ideas available for anyone to use.

      I’m in LA Kitchen to meet a huge and predictable social needs that is coming….how to develop a model that can provide healthy, low costs, ethnically diverse meals to the millions of older adults who will not have enough money in the bank for the extra years science will give them. Like I did in DC, I’m open source, so scale for me isn’t about growing my business, rather it’s proving new models work, then helping others adopt aspects of that model that could be applicable to their community. In all my businesses, I only use ingredients that are universally available, so that people can open and sustain the model with existing resources.

      But I tell everyone I work with…this is NOT the solution, so USE this model to draw people into a bigger dialogue. Take the ideas of empowerment, inclusion and social enterprise to scale.

      Thanks again for your work in LA. I hope we can connect again soon. Maybe we can host an open discussion at UC of this topic?

      • Adlai_Wertman


        You are smart, passionate, visionary and effective – the quadruple threat! I will make that open conversation happen. Until then, don’t stop!!!

  • Ian Marcus

    I love the concept of mayors/city councils creating ideal habitats for nonprofits/social entrepreneurial programs and I think this is critical, but I would argue that this is independent of the desire to scale. The majority of people that I know, tend to seek growth somewhere in their life whether its economic, spiritual, or social. Scaling a social program tends to accomplish 2 or 3 of those. I’m with you in that its possible for a program to be sustainable without scaling to other communities. However, the individuals involved are going to need growth somewhere in their lives. I think the winning formula is to have a social program that addresses an evolving issue.

    • Robert Egger

      100% agree, Ian. I know I sounded hard, but you said something that was definitely an underlying theme of this piece…grow your community, your spirit, your team…and the rest will follow. I often say, “Chase money and you run forever, chase results and money comes to you”. Too many are chasing the wrong thing, because they’ve been told that’s what matters, or makes a social enterprise a success. Thanks for digging deeper.

  • Robert – great, thought-provoking post! I fundamentally agree with you that “scale = big” is NOT what social enterprise should strive for. I struggle with people defining scale in that way, and see from your post and your response to Adlai that you do too. Paul Bloom (prof. at Duke’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship) defines scale in a way that I and many others (see many articles in SSIR, scholarly journals, etc.) see it – “achieving more efficient and effective adoption of your innovation” (Bloom, 2002). In my doctoral research on social entrepreneurship, I’ve run across several models of scaling (including Bloom’s SCALERS model) that have absolutely *nothing* to do with scaling the size of the organization, but *everything* to do with scaling impact. And, the most successful models I’ve come across in my research do so with the local context, culture, and community, firmly front and center in any strategy to both design and/or adapt and implement a successful program, model, idea, or business to solve the social problem(s) at hand. Kudos to you for your brave words in fighting the misconception that scale means creating a large behemoth organization. It is scaling impact that matters! This isn’t a popular viewpoint by any means, but one which needs to be heard, loud and clear.

    • Robert Egger

      Thanks for your thoughts, Cathy….super appreciated. I follow the work of Dude, and a great friend Chris Gergen’s work at Bull City Forward. LOTS of outstanding work being done in NC!!!