Don’t let size get you down

We North Americans are enamored with big, which likely explains the tendency of nonprofit folk to round-up just about everything. Clients served, students educated, meals dished out, lives changed. You name it and the accounting is probably exaggerated. The lengths CEOs and board members go to make their causes sound bigger and more impactful is amazing – and silly.

the_little_people_count_16455There’s no shame in working in or serving on the board of a small to mid-size organization. In fact, big is the anomaly among American nonprofits. According to Independent Sector, just 4 percent of US nonprofits top $10 million in annual revenue, while 75 percent of charities have annual expenses of less than $500,000.

In short, it’s the little guys and gals who make up the majority of the sector – grassroots charities content to serve locally. Few of the 75 percent will get much bigger or scale up to national or even regional prominence.

And that’s okay.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his landmark book, Democracy in America, wherever like-minded folks unite in support of a good cause, they “become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded” (Tocqueville 1840, 599).

If small (perhaps even tiny) describes the organization with which you work or volunteer, take heart. Little isn’t short-hand for insignificant, unimportant, or lacking in impact.

To those who benefit from whatever it is that you make possible, your organization is a big deal – even without rounding up.



  1. Yes! Dr. Anthony Bradley (keynote at the Pursuit on Friday) reminded us that small charities are more nimble and responsive than larger, more bureaucratic organizations.

    • Thank you, Lori, for making the link between a keynote address at last week’s PURSUIT ’16 conferenc and today’s Generous Matters post. Re-inforcement of my thesis statement is always appreciated — as are your comments.

      It was great to meet you at the event.

  2. Rebekah, I really appreciate this post and the reminder that the majority of non-profit, charitable organizations are small. It takes thought and discipline to recognize when our culture is inhibiting our work rather than affirming it. Certainly something for boards to keep in mind when they are assessing their organizations.

    • Agreed, Marcia, with your suggestion that boards need to keep in mind the scale of operations when in assessing their organizations. And before attenpting assessment, boards should be involved in defining what success (thriving) looks like for the organization.

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