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the grant system, but in this article, I’d like to suggest that our pursuit of scale is also tied to an equally outdated, gender-born construct.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But, the business schools of America, then and now, teach what I believe is an outdated, and particularly male-centric concept of accomplishment…BIG = Success.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!