Scale

In the 1970s, the fertile decade that gave us the Partridge Family and the “inoperative statement,” Americans encountered the philosophy of E. F. Schumacher, author of the classic Small Is Beautiful. Foundation and nonprofit writers, perhaps more susceptible to the cult of smallness than their counterparts in the profit-making world, seem to have held on to the book’s mystique well past its silver anniversary.

Nowadays you can hardly find anyone in the civic or philanthropic world who is willing to say a kind word for anything that dares to be big. Yet that doesn’t hold foundations back from the reasonable, often urgent, hope of extending good programs to more people, attracting more money for them, and helping them reach more places, deploy more personnel, and just generally do more good. Fortunately, no one has to describe any of that as growth, or expansion, or enlargement. They can call it SCALE. In the foundation world, small is still beautiful, but SCALE is beautifuler.

It may seem small of me to point this out, but everything — whatever its size or shape or reach — has scale. Even the humble amoeba scores a place on some fine-gauged scale or other. The weird but common expression GOING TO SCALE suggests the kind of staggering quantum transformation that normally only theologians or particle physicists would understand: something of utterly no dimension that bursts, suddenly and spontaneously, into a solid, measurable mass.

The insistent use of GOING TO SCALE is, I admit, merely a figure of speech, and a classic one at that. Rhetoricians call it metonymy: describing something (in this case, size) by referring to something closely associated with it (the scale by which it’s measured). Using SCALE that way is not an offense against proper English, but against clarity: How far away is “scale,” and how will we know when we’ve “gone to” it? Is the thing in question supposed to get really, really big, or just bigger than it is now? Is “big” even the point? Might some other scale — say, that of quality, financial security, renown, or innovation — be the one we’re “going to”? When asked this question bluntly, an admirably honest foundation officer answered that these other scales are irrelevant, and only size matters. But he went on to explain that urging his grantees to grow would be impolitic. “Growth,” he all but whispered, “is something Enron did. We don’t do that. We go to scale. Sometimes in a handbasket.”

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