December 5, 2022

finding the right size

a mural of trees painted on a pink background
photo caption: a mural at the brooklyn museum of art painted by Mona Chalabi called The Gray-Green Divide. the mural pairs paintings of the 100 most common trees in new york city. nearby, Mona lists the average temperatures and access to green space for new yorkers. her data serves to remind us that the presence of parks and trees correlated to lower temperatures in an area. the people who can most freely access these spaces fall across familiar divides of race, class, and wealth.

Today marks the beginning of a new year for any organization on a July-June fiscal calendar. The months leading up to a new fiscal year can be exciting or terrifying. Some people are on the side of the business that feels new or innovative to senior leadership. July for them means another year of funding or expanded budgets if they’re lucky. Others may be at the end of their current project. Funding dried up today or will sunset soon. If they’re lucky, they are on to new projects or a new organization.

Some programs experience rapid expansion, or are flush with cash for a few years. But as the crunch or crisis fades, leaders look to “right size” programs with high personnel costs. People use the term rightsizing when talking about an organization or program. When we talk about rightsizing, we often mean cuts to a program, not expansions. It’s the belief we can reduce the cost of a program while still meeting our current goals.

But is rightsizing always necessary? When can it create a costly mistake? Rightsizing seems to happen most often to newer programs or initiatives. For how long has your organization shown an explicit commitment to antiracism? Are your antiracism efforts an addition or expansion of existing work? Do those new programs face a higher level of scrutiny than legacy programs? How can we bring awareness to rightsizing within a culture of white supremacy?

The binary of the “right” size always tilts towards shrinking expenses. What if the right size for a program is to grow further? How would we know? Here are a few questions I’ve asked myself during conversations about rightsizing.

how have our objectives changed?

Many organizations are in an early phase of their antiracism practice. This is all new to them. They may have tacked racial equity on top of their existing plans and services. Try preempting a rightsizing conversation with one about our broader business objectives.

How have our goals changed with our new antiracist mission? When we talk about efficiency, what’s driving that change? What metrics or markers are decision-makers using for our continued success? How could those metrics be reflective of the expectations of white supremacy? Finally, are we shrinking the budget or responding to changing circumstances?

what is the actual right size?

For many organizations, equity-focused initiatives are new or less well-established. These may need even deeper investments before they start to pay off towards the mission. Are our leaders prepared to add to their initial investment if that’s what we need? If they’re willing to do so, what information or progress would they need to see? Equity-focused work isn’t always measured across traditional metrics. Relationship building is at the heart of many of these efforts. Those don’t track as well as logistics-based measures. Here are a few ways I’ve quantified these instead:

  • number of meetings / engagements we’ve had with community groups
  • number of attendees representing focus communities
  • number of clicks / opens for email blasts
  • number of hours or percent of staff time required to coordinate an event
  • summary of survey results, feedback, or testimonials from participants

These metrics could help make a case for sizing up a program or initiative. But rightsizing should also cover the legacy parts of the work that may not be serving everyone. How could we start to offset the losses of equity-based work by cutting other parts of the business? Are there older initiatives that we could review or sunset now or in the next budget? Could we use unrestricted funds for the equity-based efforts that live or die by grant money?

how has antiracism changed our vision of the future?

Before you have to rightsize, think about the future of your program. What are your long-term goals? What do you or your team hope to be doing in a year or five? Finance departments get nervous when we talk about scaling up a program that is high in staff costs. The larger a program, the more people it might take to run. Those costs can become astronomical in a heartbeat. If this is the future of your program, prepare yourself to find ways to justify that cost.

Another approach would be to build in efficiency and scale as you make plans for the future. Say we have a home delivery program that is half logistics staff and half delivery staff. Is there a way we could expand the program by shifting some staff from logistics to delivery? What changes could we make to the program that would not impact community members in a negative way? Even better, what changes could we make that would enhance the community’s experience?

Remember that even programs rooted in equity might exist within a company that is not. We have to be careful not to adopt standard operating procedures built to exclude people. We can’t incorporate best practices that maintain or concentrate white power. Focus on these issues within your company as you work on them externally. Advocate for pay equity and cost of living increases as standard budget expectations.

What does it cost to do this work well? What will it cost as the work becomes more complex? Assess the complexity and skill needs for each role. Start compensation at a minimum thriving wage and then add to that based on each role’s skill level.

enrich community before others

To achieve an antiracist future, power must flow into communities. Neoliberalism concentrates power over time into a few massive organizations or powerholders. Dominant culture, white supremacy culture, concentrates power among white leaders and boards. We cannot enrich ourselves while enriching communities at the same time. We have to choose. As our programs grow or change over time, we also need to ask ourselves, are we as an industry taking up too much space? Are we the right people to do this work? People in power never seem to ask themselves if they are at the right size. I think it’s time they start.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space