Laying the Tracks for Future Growth

It’s hard for nonprofits to raise money for their day-to-day work. It’s even harder to raise money to grow their impact.

Funders and nonprofit leaders tend to focus on programs and expansion plans. That’s the sexy stuff that attracts support. Too few invest adequately in building the organizational capacity needed to lay the tracks for future growth—what Bridgespan’s Paul Carttar calls the “unsexy” side of scaling.

What explains this dilemma? Many nonprofit leaders find it hard to be forthcoming with funders about what their organizations really need to execute a growth strategy—whether it’s leadership development, IT support, financial management, or performance measurement. By and large, grantmakers do not provide support that adequately addresses those needs.

This disconnect shaped a key takeaway from the panel on Capacity Building for Sustainability at the recent Social Impact Exchange Conference: most nonprofits can’t invest enough in the organizational capacity they need to stay ahead of their own growth curve. In short, great programs may flourish, but the organizations behind them fail to keep up—an unsustainable mismatch. What will it take to ensure organizations are prepared to take programs to scale?

Scaling Evidence-Based Programs to Improve the Nation’s Health

Being a Scaling in Action presenter at the Social Impact Exchange Conference this year was rewarding for several reasons. First, it forced on me the discipline to tell the story of the decade-long evolution of the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program in only 8 minutes! This wasn’t easy, but I appreciated the opportunity to refine my story. I’m now ready for “Shark Tank.” 

Second, it gave me an opportunity to hear the inspiring story of three other successful program models that are worthy and ready to scale. Finally, it provided me a tremendous opportunity to share the merits of using a nonprofit network like the Y to nationally scale evidence-based programs that can alleviate pressing social issues like diabetes.   

Attending to the “Unsexy” Side of Scaling: Sustainable Funding

This blog is reposted with permission from The author, Paul Carttar, moderated a panel at this year's Social Impact Exchange conference. 

Remarkably, the scaling of high-performing nonprofit organizations seems to have taken on a certain glamor. In our sector, we are typically eager to talk about such exciting topics as the design of promising interventions, the development of sophisticated organizational capacities, and, perhaps most alluring of all, the raising of growth capital from "investors" to fuel a program or organization's expansion or replication.

Yet there is a sobering reality, an "unsexy" side to scaling that we too frequently avoid: with each upward ratchet in size, as a nonprofit expands facilities and hires more employees, it also increases the amount of money it must raise each year simply to maintain its operations. And if it can't do this, it can no longer build scale.

Accordingly, I was pleased to see the recent Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact devote a significant chunk of time to the need to develop revenue models that enable growing nonprofits to thrive at each level of size attained. At the conference, I had the privilege of facilitating a plenary session on "Financial Sustainability at Scale" with several experts, who together provided foundational answers to four of the biggest questions on the subject:

The Power of Network Mapping: Knowledge Sharing Across Stakeholders

Following her opening plenary speech at the Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact on the morning of June 18, Heather McLeod Grant facilitated a two-hour interactive session called The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts. This session translated the conceptual ideas and learning from McLeod Grant’s speech and the subsequent panel into practical skill sets for network-mapping. The power of this technique extends beyond the practical understanding of how to map a network to a more intricate "knowledge-share process" among stakeholders. 

Concepts, strategies, and ideas were put into practice by bringing different stakeholders to the table, thus creating a shared understanding of the problem at hand. Who are the stakeholders? Where are the barriers, opportunities, and missing links?  Network mapping provided us attendees the opportunity to increase awareness and understanding of systems behind social issues, such as education, health, and poverty alleviation.

Silver Sustainability Bullets

At the Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact, Nonprofit Finance Fund’s Antony Bugg-Levine opened the Thursday morning plenary on Financial Sustainability with the seemingly provocative question, “Is scaling impact conceivable?” I say “seemingly” because this year’s Social Impact Exchange conference offered the prima facie bias that scaling impact is conceivable. I remain a skeptic. Despite the launch of venture funds and public initiatives like the Social Innovation Fund, the social impact market remains disorganized, lacking defined investment pools at different stages of capitalization.

Bugg-Levine offered up a formula for sustainability that, on its face, is entirely reasonable:

How Do We Scale Social Change?

This blog is reposted with permission from The author, Nell Edgington was a panelist at this year's Social Impact Exchange conference on scaling impact.

Last week I attended the 5th annual Social Impact Exchange Conference in New York City. It was an interesting gathering of funders, change makers and intermediaries all grappling with how to reach and sustain scaled social solutions.

“Scale” is such a challenging concept, and as I mentioned earlier, there are many entities struggling with exactly what scale means. According to Heather McLeod Grant (author of Forces for Good) whose keynote address kicked off the conference, “scale” is no longer about growing individual organizations or addressing individual issues, but rather about building movements and networks.

The idea of a networked approach to social change is not a new one (see the great Stanford Social Innovation Review article from 2008 by Jane Wei-Skillern and Sonia Marciano on this approach), but Heather underlined the importance of a more integrated and aligned approach to creating social change. I would have liked to see this idea taken further, perhaps with some of the Transformative Scale discussion that is happening elsewhere, included in this discussion.

Narrative Matters

Last week, I attended the Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact, and during the panel “Scaled Impact through Movement Building: The Young Men of Color Movement,” moderator Tonya Allen shared an experience that happened in Detroit the previous day. She recalled that a young, African American man told her he hates when people say he lives in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country, because he is not dangerous or violent.

Implicit in that statement is his awareness that people perceive him to be dangerous or violent. Such perceptions will likely impact his access to opportunities and resources, and even his safety, throughout his life.

Richard Brown, who introduced the keynote speaker for the session, spoke of being aware of the significance of perception. He talked about his concern as the father of a black son who may be vulnerable to disadvantages and mistreatment because of his racial identity.

Scaling an Ambitious Vision of Student Achievement

This blog post is part of series written by participants of the Scaling in Action© session at the 2014 Conference on Scaling Impact June 18-19. Scaling in Action features presentations from the nation's leading nonprofits, each scaling their efforts to address critical urgent issues. Here, nonprofit CEOs share more about their plans for growth and the resources needed to fund their campaigns.

I was excited to attend my first Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact this week along with a team of EL Board members and staff. It was a pivotal moment in Expeditionary Learning’s partnership with the Social Impact Exchange.

Expeditionary Learning (EL) began our partnership with the Exchange at a transformational moment in America.  Common Core State Standards – more rigorous targets for college and career readiness – have sparked a complex public dialog.  They have also yielded one point of clear consensus: we need to set the bar higher for what we expect of students coming out of our public K-12 education system.

A Moment in Time – Is the Nonprofit Sector Ready to Grab the Brass Ring?



As I have listened to sessions at this year’s Social Impact Exchange Conference looking for something to write this blog about, I am struck by the fact that I keep hearing about this being “a moment in time” for the sector.  From Heather McLeod Grant’s session on networks as the future for scale and impact in the sector, to the panel on Black Male Achievement and the pitches by organizations like Expeditionary Learning and the Center to Advance Palliative Care, we seem to collectively believe that this is a moment in time ripe for opportunity to knock the ball out of the park when it comes to scale.

For palliative care, health reform has opened the doors for new ways of health care to be provided with a focus on quality of care.  The President has signaled that the country has permission to speak openly about race and bias opening the door for a diverse cross-sector movement focused on improving the lives of men and boys of color.  For nonprofits and donors, the appetite and imperative has arrived for relational strategies to drive scaled impact – and for both, a strategy that includes the growth of organizations and the leveraging of networks.

Growth with Purpose

This blog post is part of series written by participants of the Scaling in Action© session at the 2014 Conference on Scaling Impact June 18-19. Scaling in Action features presentations from the nation's leading nonprofits, each scaling their efforts to address critical urgent issues. Here, nonprofit CEOs share more about their plans for growth and the resources needed to fund their campaigns.

How can an organization dedicated to solving a national healthcare crisis develop a growth strategy that matches the scale of the problem to be solved? At CAPC, our answer is “growth with purpose,” which was the focus of my Scaling in Action session at this year’s Social Impact Exchange Conference. The Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) is a national organization devoted to increasing access to quality palliative care for people facing serious illness and their families.  We do this through three strategies – building awareness and demand for palliative care, educating policymakers, and providing training and technical assistance to support new palliative care teams at medical facilities.

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