The power of small
Great news: there is an abundance of epic ideas and big questions hitting the nonprofit sector. These range from reorienting how we fundraise to sharing organizational power and leadership more equitably to thinking about our mission in context within a larger ecosystem of just-as-essential partners. It’s exciting, it’s motivating, it’s… also intimidating.
Sometimes it’s frankly not possible to immediately try out and implement big changes in our communications and how we work. We can get held up by our level of positional power, bureaucracy, buy-in, scarcity mindset, very real lack of resources, reputation, hierarchy, lack of trust with our audiences, and plain old fear of failure, to name a few forces at play. None are an excuse for inaction, but rather an opportunity to think creatively by thinking small.
“Small is good, small is all (The large is a reflection of the small).” –adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy
Thinking small is pragmatic given the forces named above. But, even more important, it’s a proven path to get to those bigger seismic shifts. What we learn when we make small changes can be applied to bigger decisions. When we practice small things consistently, we get where we’re going at a sustainable pace. When we’re reflecting regularly on the small things we try, we’re less likely to take rash and reactionary actions that don’t make an impact. When we break apart big projects into small pieces it also allows us to get started and test things out as opposed to getting stuck in fear of the unknown.
Philosophically, we can think about “small” in many different ways. To me, small can be defined in different contexts as:
- Few vs. many
- Relationship-driven vs. transactional
- Zoomed in vs. zoomed out
- Deep vs. wide
- Targeted vs. broad
- Intimate vs. public
- $ vs. $$$
- Near vs. far
So how can you take small steps toward change? Let’s make it tactical using a beautiful quote from tennis great Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
1. Start where you are: Openness to change starts internally.
It’s a muscle that can be built up within your organization. Consider the hallmarks of your organization’s culture. Maybe you have a set of values or some other guiding principles that help determine the ways you approach your work. You might already have existing ideas around creativity, curiosity, adaptability, or something similar that are alive within your organization. Now think about how those values play out for your nonprofit today. What would it look like to turn up the dial on those values to 100? That’d probably require some really big changes. Now think about what it would take to turn the dial up one or two degrees instead. Hopefully that feels more feasible and easier to picture in practice. Share that practical picture with your teammates and invite them to do the same.
2. Use what you have: Turn to existing forums and familiar channels.
Thinking internally, you may have regular departmental or all-staff meetings on the calendar. See if you can reserve a small amount of time on the agenda (10 minutes) for some imagination time. When space for creativity becomes a regular practice, it’ll come more naturally. I know that I sometimes struggle with the quarterly or annual full day reserved for visioning time. It feels too big and pressured without being accompanied by a more steady, small pulse of creative thinking on a regular basis.
Turning to your existing communications channels and most common ways of talking to your audiences. There are infinite possibilities for testing and tweaking everything from your photography choices to your subject line to your brochure printing format and beyond. Just make sure the changes you make are purposeful. For example, let’s say the change you seek is to become more equitable in your communications. Beginning to use emojis in your email subject line may or may not be a meaningful change to that end. Are emojis accessible to your audiences? Compelling? Do they add to what you’re trying to say or are they a flashy distraction?
3. Do what you can: Commit to learning, reflecting, and sharing.
In a hero’s journey, the return is one of the most important parts. Once you’ve ventured out into the world and made your changes, it’s vital to evaluate what you learn and share those reflections with your team. This bolsters buy-in and helps enliven a culture of change. But what happens if you don’t see the results you wanted? Well, first of all, it’s probably not so bad given the smaller scale of investment you made. Second, what did you see? As one of Rihanna’s tattoos says: “Never a failure, always a lesson.” Use those lessons to make smarter small changes next time.