Scaling up Vs Working in Small Movements


A Question of Scale

Eroc Arroyo Montano speaks about the value of “working small” to build our movements

Should movement organizations prioritize scaling up, or is there value in operating on a smaller scale within social movements? 

In the context of nonprofit organizations, “scaling up” refers to the process of expanding an organization’s impact and reach. When an organization attempts to scale up, it aims to increase the magnitude of its programs and services to serve more people and, hopefully, have a greater influence on issues that organization hopes to tackle. Funders often look for organizations that are growing bigger and equate that growth with more impact, more success, more reach. The push to grow is often accepted as an unquestioned goal among organizers and activists. After all, don’t we need to bring more people into our campaigns for a just economy?

I recently sat down with Eroc Arroyo Montano, UFE’s Director of Cultural Organizing, to talk over these questions. Eroc is questioning the wisdom of “scaling up” as the most effective way to build and grow the ways of being we are cultivating for a more just world. In contrast, he invites us to think about “working small in a way where we can all have a seat at the table,” prioritizing grassroots and community based strategies, and addressing issues at a local level.


Gabrielle Dominique: What does scaling up mean to you?

Eroc Arroyo Montano: When I was a student in art school – and I attended as an adult who had already had a career touring as part of a Hip Hop duo – “scaling up” was always associated with making something physically bigger. In our capitalist society, “scaling up” is connected to the never-ending desire to make more money. I’ll provide a real world example – a company in the stock market may have a very successful fiscal year. Despite that, the CEO’s main concern would be, “what can we do to make more money next year?” The company may choose to lay off workers to make way for making more money. In a nonprofit context, an organization may choose to scale up by making their mission based on how many more constituents they can impact in the years to come.


GD: What are the alternatives to scaling up? 

EAM: An alternative to scaling up is working in a small team to achieve a bigger goal. Adrienne Marie Brown, a writer, activist and facilitator, writes about  ”fractals.” Fractals is a concept that speaks to how anything we do on the smaller scale can be good for the bigger scale. Think of your favorite basketball team. Basketball teams usually consist of up to 15 players and these teams do not try to get championships by adding more players on their roster. Instead they work on building the players’ skill.

At UFE, our team consists of nine people working from three regional hubs in the U.S. This was a strategic move so that we can reach more people from various regions. In a way, this is a way to “scale up” without increasing the size of our staff. Our small staff can build deeply with local partners in each location. We do what we can to help people with strategic movement support without scaling up the number of members on our team.


GD: How can we go about working small while reaching critical masses? And how do we have impact that’s at a scale relative to challenges we’re confronting?

EAM: Let me give you an example of working small in social movements. Organizing a protest is a prime illustration of working small, because the event usually hinges on a small group of organizers, the relationships they have with each other, the strategies they’ve aligned on, a shared analysis that they may have been co-developing. From that foundation, much can be achieved, many people can be mobilized to participate. After all, the number of organizations doesn’t have to reflect the amount of people showing up to protest if organizing is executed efficiently. 

GD: Would you say you are “working small” in your role at UFE?

EAM: At UFE, we have done our part in working small in social movements. Last November, we hosted our annual Fall Training of Trainers (ToT) at the Highlander Research and Education Center. We had 16 participants, ideally I’d consider no more than 24 participants as a sweet spot so the training can be personal.

At the Fall ToT, I host healing circles. Some of the Fall ToT participants may go on to learn  to host their own healing circles. The act of taking what you’ve learned and sharing it with others is a way to scale up, but by keeping the work itself small and relationship-based. This is a prime example of the “multiplier effect” because if participants choose to become circle leaders or facilitators then participants of their circle or trainings may go on to become circle leaders as well. Now there are more circles being formed to help liberate us all. Anything getting us liberated should be accessible to the people, so as you can see, we do not need a large number of participants to necessarily scale up, we can still have an impact while working small. 


“In US social movements, a lot of strategy gets developed by cohorts of friends. I think if we could be a lot more honest about that and more transparent about which friends and which crew and its assets and limitations, and what other crew and friends they can hook up with, it might help us be more direct about addressing power within the movement.”

— Rinku Sen, speaking on Episode 29, "Friends Not Allies," of Gibrán's Podcast


GD: Do you often see nonprofit organizations trying to scale up?

EAM: Yes, some nonprofit organizations are trying to compete against each other for the resources they need to scale up their work. For instance, let’s say there are two  organizations that are five miles apart who both want a $150,000 grant. . In order to get this grant these nonprofit organizations now have to pitch themselves to those in charge of distributing the grant. These organizations are now going to go against each other for the grant, fighting for crumbs off the table, but they should be thinking about how everyone can sit at the table. These organizations that are pitching themselves remind me of a famous quote by MLK which reads “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary." We need to keep in mind that nonprofit organizations rarely want to share grants due to the scarcity model and the limited funding that nonprofits receive. In the end, we see that these organizations are competing against each other like big corporations. 


GD: Do you think scaling up is authentic or something that prevents organizations from keeping a cause at heart? 

EAM: Yes, there is always an exception to the rule, so scaling up can be authentic. There are resources that people need but there shouldn't be monopoly over things. The issue is that scaling up can become inauthentic once nonprofit organizations adopt for profit models. Once that model is adopted we start to see that more employers in nonprofit organizations can sometimes lose the connection with their employers. There’s sometimes the fear of nonprofit organizations with wealthy CEOs which is where inauthenticity could start to take place. This creates this uneasy feeling because these wealthy CEOs may feel detached from the cause they’re fighting for and even detached from their employees who may be from a lower class. 


GD: What can UFE and other grassroots organizations do in order to avoid scaling up? 

EAM: Those working in grassroots organizations need to make a vow to be clear with themselves on what is possible. I’m not saying that we should put limits on our dreams but we need to make sure that our dreams align to the progress and betterment of our organizations. 



Eroc Arroyo Montano is an educator, artist, facilitator, organizer, youth worker and community activist. At UFE Eroc Arroyo Montano serves as the Director of Cultural Organizing. Known for his leadership across various endeavors, including the development of urban youth programs and the advancement of intersectional movements, Eroc Arroyo demonstrates unwavering commitment to fostering justice in race, gender, economics, and the environment movements.

Gabrielle Dominique is a current intern at UFE as a Tufts University Tisch Scholar. At UFE, Gabrielle contributes to our blog and newsletter, while also observing and learning from UFE's Executive Director at Popular Economics Education trainings and workshops held with community-based organizations.


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