Organizations Look to Scale Impact Through Federated Model

Daniels Spectrum is one of 10 Artscape Toronto projects. Located at 585 Dundas Street East in the Regent Park neighbourhood, the 60,000-square foot community cultural hub is the professional home of seven cultural organizations.

Organizations Look to Scale Impact Through Federated Model

Balancing independence and affiliation — while thriving — the ongoing challenge

Whether it’s Generative Journalism, creative placemaking or graduate-level sustainable management programs, the question of how to bring a promising social innovation to more of the world — without creating an empire — is a question of growing interest these days.

Many of those who have discovered some of the most exciting possibilities for society today anguish over the best way to scale that discovery.

There tends to be a strong recognition that the days of largesse are for the most part past. People are seeing that small, local, diverse solutions are in fact the key to creating a resilient, elegant economy and society.

But what about social innovations that seem to hold promise for more than just a single geography or community? Is there a way to scale them by blending the strengths that largesse does have to offer with the power of the small, beautiful way?

That’s the question a number of organizations Axiom News has encountered recently are asking.

  Griet Bouwen of Belgium (left) during a recent visit to Axiom News. Also pictured, Axiom News team members Yvonne Hollandy and Ben Wolfe.

They’re looking to the federated model as a potential response.

Artscape Toronto is one example. After years of essentially scaling its impact through coaching in particular, the pioneer of creative placemaking is now exploring the possibilities in creating affiliates — units operating under the Artscape name that have the independence and ability to chart their own course.

Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco has also had conversations about the potential in the federated model for the small-size institution, which offers graduate level programs in sustainable management.

Enterprising Non-profits Canada is currently operating as a network of what it calls affiliates, an assembly of somewhat independent units working together under a federal or unified centre.

Axiom News has also long seen promise in the federated model.

The satisfaction that people derive from creating something and making it work depends to some extent on their feeling some independence. That’s what the separate, somewhat independent units allow.

At the same time, the “strength in numbers” principle can’t be ignored. In the best federations, there are clear, established ways to share knowledge and assets, build administrative efficiencies, strengthen buying power, and ultimately, ideally, co-create together.

British economist Charles Handy’s premise is that small units which are independent in nature yet connected will generate more creativity and more productivity than completely independent units not connected with anyone else.

The challenge is how to create that balance between independence and affiliation — to optimize the benefits of both.

This has been coming home in a very real way for Axiom News.

A few years ago the Canadian news agency received an e-mail from a then virtual stranger. Warm and beautifully written, the note was a response to a message we had posted to the Axiom News website inviting people to join us in co-creating a life-giving news network for a renewed and thriving world.

It was the first overt response we had received and we saw it as a turning point.

Fast forward a couple years and Griet Bouwen, the person who sent that original note, is operating her own news agency inspired by Axiom News in her home country of Belgium. She is now a friend too.

What she and us and now others who have since expressed interest in co-creating this news network continue to wrestle with is how we organize to allow for that elegance and lightness of relationship as separate yet connected units — and so that we’re all thriving.

Founder of Presidio Graduate School Richard Gray says creating a federation has really more to do with spirit than with law, because you can’t turn this kind of operation into a legal system as much as a system where people have made the commitment to work together.

“If you haven’t made that commitment, nothing else is going to work anyway,” Richard says.

So the commitment is the bedrock. But, building on that, there seems to be a need for a certain amount of processes to ensure that all that is desired can in fact take place. Yes, the risk is always real of creating another life-sucking large system. How to navigate the strength of the large with the beauty of the small is the daily calling. And, adding to the complexity, there’s the ongoing question of how to make this activity financially sustainable for all parties involved.

Axiom News is still exploring the deeper possibilities in all of this. As we do, we’d be interested to speak with others on a similar journey.

An invitation:
If you would like to join us in a conversation on scaling up impact through federation, please e-mail michelle(at)

You can comment on this story below, or e-mail michelle(at)

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Michelle Strutzenberger's picture
Michelle Strutzenberger

Generative Journalist


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