What size should your organization be?

The size of a ministry affects services offered, financial model, member commitment and more. Determining the right scale is key to effective planning.

Ten years after establishing a church consulting group, the board of directors appointed a task force to determine how many consultants and clients we should be serving.

As the founding president of the Center for Congregational Health, I knew that more churches could use our services, but we had a peculiar method that required extensive training and experience to execute. Expanding the staff and scaling our services would require significant effort.

It was not clear if we should grow or stabilize.

Many Christian institutions face issues of scale. In the past 10 years, the most frequent question I receive from congregational leaders relates to the scale of the church staff: How many staff members should the church have, given its size?

Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Fall 2013 issue features an article on “The Secret of Scale,” in which Peter Murray reports on his study of 50 large-scale civic organizations. His subjects included U.S. institutions, such as NRA, AARP, megachurches, unions and trade associations, as well as international organizations, such as the Canadian Federation of Students, the Mondragon workers cooperative in Spain and consumer cooperatives in England.

The study looked into the organizations’ finances, membership models, and policy and organizing strategies, seeking to understand what drives growth and influence over others in such organizations.

The key finding in the study is that the building of deeper member relationships involves the overlap of three key strategies: fostering in-person member community, offering an engaging media platform, and providing tangible benefits and services.

The impetus of Murray’s work was to understand how organizations can most effectively engage citizens in creating systemic change. He discovered that solely focusing on issues was a “trap” that limited an organization’s impact. In order for institutions to be more effective, Murray advocates for a functional organizing that deepens the relationship with its members.

Scaling an organization has a dramatic impact on the connection members feel towards the organization.

Smaller organizations tend to attract such small numbers that people feel connected as one who knows and is known. Yet smaller membership rolls, despite the members’ dedication, limit the organization’s impact.

As Murray indicates, large-scale organizations often have significant policy influence even though many members have a transactional relationship with the organization because some sign up for the services with no particular concern for the organization’s lobbying agenda.

Scale also has significant impact on the financial model of the institutions.

The decision to remain small provides the opportunity to create the most intimate of relationships with members, but also requires very tight control of expenses. The decision to grow means focusing on activities that raise money including marketing membership, fundraising and developing services. Such activities require significant up-front financial investment.

Stanford Social Innovation Review reports that “According to a recent study on the state of scaling impact, conducted by the Social Impact Exchange and Veris Consulting, only 24 percent of nonprofits currently scaling have started fundraising and only 42 percent have a growth business plan. When it comes to scaling, many nonprofits are trying to ‘build the plane while flying,’ when a more disciplined approach is required.

When I was the president of the Center for Congregational Health, we decided to keep our consulting enterprise small. As board members studied the issue, they heard from experienced leaders of service firms (lawyers, accountants and consultants) that the quality of service declines as the firm grows. New people require time to learn the work.

The size of a ministry is more than a fact. It is a driving factor in many key decisions regarding member commitment, impact of influence, services rendered, financial model, key partnerships and more. Finding ways to measure scale and understand its impact is a key to effective planning for the future.