The Long Tail Phenomenon

Over the years there has been a clear trend in the making: one which speaks more of market-based solutions, scale, innovation, accelerated impact, social enterprises and financial sustainability and less of improvisation, replicability, micro-contextualisation, and deepening the quality of impact.

 

Pursuit of scale has its own benefits but is it important for a few organisations to scale, or the work across the sector to scale as a whole? In the hastening consensus around scale and the proliferation of amorphous terms such as social enterprise, social purpose organisations, are we in a way retreating from some of the core developmental concerns and the difficulty that lies behind addressing them?

 

Our experience at SSF has strongly convinced us of the contrary: of the ever increasing relevance of the not-for-profit model in general, and small and medium sized ones in particular, as far as India is concerned, that look to attack some of the most structural of societal concerns.

 

This is because, the development sector, like most industries, is a long-tail phenomenon: that the sum of the work done across the tail of the sector far outstrips that by a few larger ones. This follows quite naturally from a simple observable fact: development is about real persons and real communities located at a certain place and time. For the work of an organisation to be truly effective, the organisation has to over time blend itself in that particular context and become its permanent fixture.

 

In India there are a few social concerns that continue to animate the idea of development, where a large number of small to medium sized organisations are very active:

  1. caste- and gender-based discrimination,

  2. fast-paced and unplanned urbanisation,

  3. neglect of the rural economy and its social conditions,

  4. exclusion from a fair representation in the local political processes,

  5. excessive privatisation of health and educational services, as well as

  6. damaging consequences of environmental changes on livelihoods and lives of the most vulnerable.

 

Responses to these issues can only be thought of with regard to a particular context, and they emerge over time through a series of experiments and projects. Many a time, these responses do not fit the neat sectoral classification buckets of a funder. Often times, they demand cross-sectoral responses.

 

However, this inherent strength to tease out responses in real-time prevents many small to medium sized non-profits from fitting into the mainstream market-centric framework that demands scale, a neat theory-of-change, structure and a target-driven approach to development. Their limited resources also implies that these same organisations are unable to match remunerations offered by larger organisations. This, in turn, leaves them at the mercy of sporadic donors who, while willing to fund them for short-term projects, set unrealistic targets on outreach and scale, as well as pressurise these non-profits to steer away from their primary mission and compromise their organisational ethos. Other existential issues of equal importance that plague small and medium-sized organisations relate to the future of the organisation, its purpose, and avenues for growth.

 

If one has to problematise this situation then it would be as follows : how to preserve the inherent strengths of the really long-tail and ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts? As an important first-step, it requires focus of donors and professionals to move beyond programmes to fundamental organisational questions and concerns which largely involve -

  1. How to not give into the orthodoxy around development and keep true to one’s own sense of purpose?

  2. How to ensure strategy & execution remain in harmony with mission?

  3. How to expand management bandwidth of leadership?

  4. How to help a not-for-profit transition to a hybrid (not-for-profit + for-profit arms) operating model without altering the essence of its mission and culture?

  5. How to navigate perceived complexity in managing structure and operations through use of skillful interventions (non-intrusive + non-disruptive + non-resource-intensive)?

  6. How to mobilise and secure funding that is in tune with the organisation's character?