December 15, 2014 by Debra Gittler
QUALITY OR QUANTITY: THE VALUE OF SCALE?
ConTextos is a learning organization—we constantly reflect upon our work to iterate and improve. This means learning from our mistakes and successes to grow better as well as bigger. But lately, it seems that scale—growth, massive growth—is synonymous with quality; that being bigger innately means being better.
We’re still figuring out the sweet-spot for ConTextos. What’s the right size? Should we be in all 5,000 schools in El Salvador? Should we expand as a “boutique organization” (limited presence but high quality) throughout the Northern Triangle Countries? Throughout the CAFTA-DR region?
There are millions of children who need what ConTextos’ provides. Should we aim to reach them all?
Last month’s New Republic article “Stop Trying to Save the World: Big Ideas are Destroying International Development” identified exactly the challenge with scale: not only do solutions not always cross cultural lines, but the administrative structures that ensure success for small organizations aren’t the same as those for big organizations. In other words, not only does the solution suffer when taken to scale; so does the organization.
“It’s not that development is broken,
it’s that our expectations of it are.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of ConTextos. We have worked hard to create a scalable, replicable model. Our most recent assessments show outstanding outcomes in terms of reading levels and teacher practice. And we’re growing so quickly: from three schools in 2011 to 46 schools today, and adding an additional 23 in 2015. And that’s in just one of our three programs.
I also know that if we grow any more, we’ll seriously compromise our ability to thrive. Our programming will suffer, we won’t be able to adequately prepare our staff and, administratively, we just won’t keep up.
And there’s a personal cost. For the Executive Director, scale means travel. More fundraising, more offices, more contacts, more networking. John Wood, the Founder and former CEO of Room to Read (in Asia and Africa) travelled constantly for over ten years as he built his organization. In his memoirs, he constantly laments the hours in planes and hotels, and the San Francisco “home” that he almost never visited.
As 2014 comes to a close, it’s a natural time to pause and reflect. To think about all that’s been accomplished in the past year and all that there is to do in the coming months. I know for sure that we will be in 69 schools in 2015. Right now, that’s all the growth we need. It’s not because we don’t want to grow big, it’s just that first, we want to grow better.
Founder and Executive Director
A Letter of Gratitude
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