Scaling: Money Is Important, But Not Sufficient

David C. Colby, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Posted: June 13, 2012

The Social Impact Exchange Conference begins today, June 13th.  The basic purpose of the Exchange is to facilitate the flow of money to support evidence-based solutions so that they can be taken to scale.  No one would argue with that noble goal.  Indeed, all of us strongly support it.

This effort, however, won’t succeed without developing and using two types of knowledge: evaluations of interventions and assessments of the methods used to scale them.  Those developing interventions or their supporters need to develop evidence about the impact of their intervention.  Since investors want to spend their charitable dollars wisely, let’s give them the evidence. 

For example, in a Symposium session (prior to the Conference), Nicole Farmer Hurd of AdvisingCorps said, "Evaluation isn't about judgment, it's about learning. If it doesn't work, fix it.”  In the 1970s David Olds who advocated the idea that we now call Nurse-Family Partnership wanted strong research to demonstrate the impact of that intervention.  Over time, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and others funded random-controlled trials that showed that the Nurse-Family Partnership improved prenatal health, child school readiness, and maternal employment.  Today, it is cited as an example of an evidence-based intervention.  

The second need for knowledge is about what works in scaling.  What do we know about successful replication?  What are characteristics of organizations or initiatives that are successfully replicated?  What roles do money and leadership play in scaling? How much fidelity to the model has to be maintained? The Social Impact Exchange has developed a Knowledge Center that contains valuable information on scaling through replication.  For all who are thinking about replication, I commend it to you.

Money is important; knowledge is important.  Both are necessary for successful scaling.

David C. Colby is Vice President, Research and Evaluation at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.