I’ve been growing DIG (Development in Gardening) for almost 13 years and over that time I’ve intentionally avoided conversations focused on “scale.” For many in the development sector, “scale” has become the gold standard for “good.” But for me, scale leaves me suspicious. It often reduces progress down to a quest for number of people reached over quality of impact made, and when working to shift social norms or address the endless negative effects stemming from poverty, the solution can’t always be as simple as more.     

DIG, for example, works with some of the world’s most vulnerable people to improve their nutrition and livelihoods by growing sustainable vegetable gardens. The people we serve are the chronically malnourished, the ultra-poor, the elderly, the physically disabled, refugees, people living with HIV, and the marginalized. It is challenging enough to serve the deeply vulnerable, but to do so through the cultivation of land in the age of climate change creates endless obstacles DIG must adjust to. 

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What DIG has learned over these years is that our success comes down to our ability to listen and adapt our program to meet the unique challenges, needs, wants, and desires of each community we serve. We’ve learned that it’s all about building relationships. This takes time because good relationships are built on trust, something earned— something that appears inherently at odds with the interests of scale. 

Reluctantly, I’ve known that for DIG’s future, we were going to have to address the question of scale at some point. As impact investor Jennifer Kenning from Align Impact asked us, “Who does DIG want to be when it grows up?” So, when I applied to the Miller Center’s GSBI program (a program that is all about preparing to scale), I did so with some ambivalence. Honestly, I wasn’t sure we would be seen as a viable candidate. I suspected the program would force me to re-examine some of what I held near and dear about DIG. After all, Santa Clara University and Miller Center are in the heart of Silicon Valley, one of the biggest proponents for fast, scalable, market-based business solutions. I worried that GSBI would ignore some important lessons DIG had learned along the way about quality and nuance and might ask us to sacrifice our development philosophy on the altar of scale.  

So when I say I was genuinely surprised to find out DIG was not only accepted but later invited to the 10-day In-Residence in California, it would be an understatement. The affirmation of this acceptance was gratifying, to be sure, but my gratitude was accompanied by fearful preparations for defending DIG’s (and my) commitment to quality. I felt a bit like David going up against the Goliaths of growth.

Fortunately, I had ten months of preparation and hard work leading up to the In-Residence. In addition to my own DIG staff and board members supporting me, I was accompanied by 3 incredible GSBI mentors who challenged and refined my models and ideas and became real believers in DIG and what we have learned. 

When I finally arrived in Santa Clara, I was ready to not only answer DIG’s troublesome question of scale, but redefine it. And I was ready to go into battle to defend it if necessary.

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What I found, however, was not a battlefield at all. The Goliaths were products of my own imagination. Instead, my review panels— what I had thought would be tough-minded business-types looking to poke holes in details, bring to light weak spots, and force me to rethink DIG’s strategy and organization— instead, became opportunities for insight and affirmation. They provided me encouragement to keep going and go deeper. They offered suggestions for better framing and communication; they prepared me for hard conversations with potential investors. Best of all, my panelists became genuine thought partners for DIG’s journey ahead.

I had expected a rough, competitive environment where social entrepreneurs jockeyed for attention, validation, and resources.  What I experienced instead was community and support. This was a gathering of incredible people using their experience and whatever tools they had to advance social justice in many sectors in many corners around the world. Over the 10-day In-Residence, their mentors became my mentors, their strengths melded with DIG’s, and we became each other’s cheerleaders and sounding boards. We gave and received challenging feedback with honesty, humility, and love and listened to each other’s investor pitches with a desire to strengthen our voices for future success. 

The Miller Center’s GSBI program was more than I could have ever expected. It not only delivered on its mission, it did so with the love and nuance I have found so necessary in my own work. If we are going to address some of the world’s biggest challenges, we need a vision for scale, but we also need to walk the path together and hold space for the subtleties our respective enterprises require. 

No injustice happens in a vacuum; we have to embrace our connected story. We are all part of a complex ecosystem, and accounting for that ecosystem can’t be overlooked or oversimplified. I have found that Miller Center’s staff, mentors, entrepreneurs, and extended community are genuinely committed to connecting our stories and accompanying us on a shared journey to both broaden but also deepen our impact. I personally look forward to continuing to be a part of this incredible network as a grateful and contributing alumnus. 

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About the Author

Sarah Koch

Founder & Executive Director
DIG (Development in Gardening)
GSBI 2019 Alumni
www.reaplifeDIG.org