Scaling Social Impact in Six Steps

Sarika Bansal, Dowser.org
Posted: July 2, 2012

The recent Social Impact Exchange conference discussed one of the most difficult aspects of running a nonprofit organization: the decision of how, and when, to grow.  How does an organization decide to go from being a community-centered group to a national network?  How should organizations think about collaborating with others?  When does it make sense for nonprofits to engage with policymakers and try to reform the systems in which they operate?  When should an organization stay put?

The conference, which took place over two days in New York City, featured an impressive group of speakers, participants, and collaborators.  Several nonprofits discussed their methods of growth, which ranged from working with local governments to pursuing cross-sector partnerships.  Philanthropists, foundations, and other funders discussed what they seek when they fund a growing NGO.  Academics spoke of trends they have seen in the space over time.

Here are a few of the key takeaways from the conference:

Scaling up does not necessarily mean replication.  There are many ways an organization can grow, many of which go well beyond replicating its programs.  A music education program in South Carolina can consider replicating its success in Minnesota.  Alternatively, it may decide that there are other, more effective, uses of its resources.  It could work with South Carolina’s Department of Education to get music education into public schools.  It could partner with a consortium of community colleges.  It could begin offering music classes online.  The possibilities are endless.

Invest in infrastructure and capacity.  Many nonprofits have the tendency to not use funding to invest in the organization.  If a nonprofit wants to be successful in the long run, it needs to invest in the necessary infrastructure, including the right people, technology, and processes.  David Bornstein, in this week’s Fixes column, referred to this as the distinction between “buying” and “building.”  Think of it as the difference between paying for a single ambulance ride and putting a down payment on a vehicle.  The former, which is more common in the nonprofit world, looks to “buy” individual services for beneficiaries, often as cheaply as possible.  The latter, meanwhile, aims to “build” a long-lasting enterprise.  Organizations and funders that focus on buying end up looking for short-term successes, while builders are often able to grow more sustainably.

“A bad system will always trump a good program.”  This quote is from keynote speaker Patrick McCarthy, President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  His organization, which supports disadvantaged children in the United States, realized that its impact would be limited until it engaged directly with the nation’s criminal justice and juvenile detention systems.  McCarthy discussed the importance of looking for the key “levers” that keep a system from functioning smoothly and, when appropriate, fighting to change them.

You don’t have to collaborate with everyone.  In today’s world of “strategic partnerships” and “collective impact,” many organizations think they need to partner with as many groups as possible to be successful.  However, as Dinah Waldsmith Dittman of Kaiser Permanente warned, “Collaboration is not a hammer, and not everything’s a nail.”  Successful growth depends not on the quantity but on the quality of partnerships.

Devote resources to coordination.  When an organization does decide to partner to grow, it should do so thoughtfully.  This means setting time aside to agree on the partnership’s vision and goals, deciding in advance each party’s role in the partnership, giving someone the task of coordinating between partners, and being transparent about reaching milestones.  This can, according to FSG’s John Kania, mean the difference between success and failure of a collaboration.

Rome was not built in a day.  Scaling up takes an enormous amount of patience and time.  It’s a messy process, said many speakers, and it doesn’t always turn out the way an organization initially envisions.  As long as an organization has a good team working together to realize a common mission, and as long as it’s comfortable making adjustments along the way, it should be just fine.