Go Big or Go Home! Defining Beneficial Scale

06/26/2015 03:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

At Sustainatopia 2015 in Los Angeles, an underlying question was how are we going to scale good stuff? In the past, the word "scale" did not automatically bring growth to mind. Mostly a noun referring to an instrument that weighed things in the balance (unless you were scaling a mountain perhaps to measure it), the ancient image of the scales in the constellation of Libra was imprinted in humanities unconscious, and depicted in Egyptian tombs where the soul's worthiness was weighed against a feather at the end of life. Now, "scale" seems to be primarily a verb, meaning to grow without reference to balance at all.

Forget about scaling back or scaling down. The phrase "go big or go home!" was called out by a worldly wise panelist as though scaling or size was all that mattered. This was the shout out from the U.S. Agriculture Department for decades, despite the fact that the only farms that are sustainable and increasingly profitable are mostly under 50 acres!

Let's not lose touch with the insights in Schumacher's classic, "Small is Beautiful...Economics as if People Mattered." Scale, in this thoughtful set of essays, had to do with context. "Appropriate technology" was the takeaway concept. A huge tractor makes no sense on the small scale organic farms that have proliferated in this country. Less human power and more horsepower fit in on large scale factory farms, but these agri-businesses are often tax write-offs for the rich while degrading the soil and polluting the water.

My point is to focus on the word "appropriate." There are many ways to "go big." Even small scale solutions can go global and scale to global relevance. Human powered farms and gardens are a great example.

Decades ago, I was thinking about scale in terms of building a replicable model for social enterprises. I raised capital for a small non-profit to employ workers with disabilities to build high-end Swiss beds With grants and a line of credit we were able to convert a barn into a small production facility for the beds. Soon we made $30K worth of beds per month with two very moderately handicapped adults working alongside a master craftsman.

In time I had raised almost a million dollars and was feeling awkward about the small number of special-needs adults who were able to participate. In fact, the business was not sufficiently profitable because of the cost of imported parts. We would need to scale up to one hundred beds a day and make all the parts ourselves to become viable as a business and be self supporting. To raise that kind of capital, we would have needed equity investors in a for-profit business.

In 1982, we did not fully grasp the beauty and potential of a hybrid for-benefit company that could combine for-profit businesses with charitable goals. So instead, the factory barn became a cabinetry shop for building our own residences and other buildings for the community. To create more meaningful employment, I began farming with a pitchfork, a truck I bought with my own money, and a scythe. Cows were donated and as a community, we began to build an agricultural enterprise with young people who needed a place to grow and learn.

Over the years, an alternative campus for young people developed. We grew from a pole barn lashed together like a makeshift Buddhist temple to a proper barn; and today the properties have expanded to 400 acres, with many enjoying meaningful work each day or residing full time. Hardly what one would call large scale, but touching many lives and perhaps serving as a model that could scale.

No doubt scalable interventions are happening today in the largest global corporations; and nothing is more relevant than the massive infrastructure projects that are cleaning up brown-fields and waterways, providing green transportation for the masses and improving local and global distribution systems. That is a given. But something new is happening that is making "tiny" beautiful in a way Schumacher may not have envisioned: the scale of tiny transactions proliferating on the internet. Apparently, a large and increasing number of internet transactions are under $10, much of it in music. Imagine the power of aggregation in increments of energy savings by millions, or the eventual success of crowd funding the renewal of a neighborhood in tiny increments from locals who care.

An early example of this new trend is Kiva, a site that matches small-scale investors with $25 or more with small micro-entrepreneurs in the "majority" world. Investors can expect to get money back to recycle, but interest does not accrue in the meantime. Nevertheless this site raises millions each month for thousands of entrepreneurs.

Many socially minded investors are quite content with no or low returns offered by such non-profits, however this concessionary lending is not appropriate on a large scale for retirement plans, because it will not generate interest for retirees' future.

To scale the capitalization of profitable enterprises that can support the future, we need a user-friendly website with interactive learning and global crowd sourcing of the most beneficial initiatives, searchable by geography and sector including a network of vetted due diligence experts. This will scale impact.