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5 Ways to Scale

By Nell Edgington

Key to the entire social entrepreneurship movement is the idea of scale.  If we are truly going to solve a social problem, right a disequilibrium, or fix a crumbling institution the solution has to grow to scale.  It cannot stay small and secluded; it has to grow until it has changed the underlying system.  But scale can be a nebulous thing.  What does it mean, what does it look like, how does it happen?

Peter Frumkin, head of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service at the University of Texas at Austin and leading nonprofit management and philanthropy thinker and author, came up with a model for understanding the various forms scale can take.  His 5 Models for Scale provides a nice framework for understanding the broader implications of what scale is and what it can look like.  He defines scale as “creating a lasting and significant impact” and defines the five platforms  from which scale can emerge as:

  1. Financial Strength: Scale comes from the financial strength and sustainability of a large and enduring institution (usually universities and museums).  Through endowments and deep donor relationships these institutions can weather most, if not all, economic situations and potentially exist indefinitely.  Scale here is not about outcomes or inputs, but rather about the institution itself and its ability to endure.
  2. Program Expansion: Scale is a function of the increasing number of clients served.  By growing the number of program inputs (clients) by several multiples, a program can achieve scale.  This form of scale happens in one location, not to be confused with Multi-Site Replication (below).
  3. Comprehensiveness: Scale here is achieved when a set of activities and interventions occur within one organization or a closely integrated collaboration of organizations.  For example, when the food, housing, education, childcare and healthcare needs of the homeless are all addressed through one integrated solution, in the case of Jane Addams’ Hull House.
  4. Multi-site Replication: Scale in this case expands a program to other sites in the city, region, country or world.  This replication can be instigated either from within the organization (through franchises and chapters) or from outside of the organization through independent efforts of funders or other interested parties.  This form of scale often requires the vision and commitment of a single individual to make it a success, for example with Teach for America or KIPP (charter schools).
  5. Accepted Doctrine: In its final form, scale does not involve growth or expansion of an organization or program, but rather an idea.  Scale occurs when a way of thinking or addressing a problem or field changes.  A particular organization or program does not control scale in this case, but rather a new model or way of addressing a problem reaches a “tipping point” where it suddenly becomes the norm.

Each model has its benefits and drawbacks.  For example, the Financial Strength model doesn’t necessarily mean that change is occurring, rather an institution merely persists.  The Program Expansion model, too, doesn’t guarantee impact, rather scale is about increasing the number of inputs.  The Accepted Doctrine model is difficult, if not impossible, to control and mold to a particular outcome.  And, as mentioned above, Multi-Site Replication relies heavily on a key individual, a very clear understanding and articulation of what makes the current model successful, and an ability to replicate that success.

I think this framework is a useful way to understand the various forms that scale can take.  It all goes back to the notion that in order for social entrepreneurship to be a successful movement, we have to understand what it is that we are doing and how we are doing it.  If broad and sweeping change in various areas of need is the ultimate goal, we have to be smart and strategic about how that change is happening and what form of change makes the most sense.  Impact, change, scale can take many forms depending on the problem being faced and the best solution(s) for it.  I imagine that as the field of social entrepreneurship continues to evolve other forms and understanding of scale will emerge.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

Thursday, April 9th, 2009 Nonprofits, scale, Social Entrepreneurship

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6 Comments to 5 Ways to Scale

Tony Wang
April 9, 2009

Hi Nell,

I’ve been a reader of your blog for some time now and am a big fan of your writing. Thanks for all your updates and insights on the social entrepreneurship space!

What do you think of the nonprofit version of scale, as compared to the for-profit version? It seems unnecessarily and confusingly complicated when new concepts and frameworks are constantly being proposed and invented – and I wonder if the sector is missing the mechanisms to describe scale simply. Why couldn’t we simply say scale is when a nonprofit expands or social innovation gets widely adopted?

The Jargon Exhausted

Nell Edgington
April 9, 2009

Thanks Tony. I’m a big fan of your writing as well and the work of Blueprint and Lucy. You guys are amazing!

I agree with you the there may be something to be learned from for-profits in terms of scale. Have you read Jeffrey Bradach’s Franchise Organizations? It’s about how chains have expanded effectively. He didn’t mean for it to apply to nonprofits, but I think it could be a useful model for social entrepreneurs.

I agree with you that we need to simplify, and indeed businesses have been growing for awhile and may have something to offer. I do think, however, that we have to be careful not to borrow too freely. Because nonprofits have their mission as their bottomline, as opposed to just profit, and missions are harder to define and measure I think scaling that mission is also a bit more complex. But perhaps it doesn’t have to be as complex as we make it.

Tony Wang
April 9, 2009

Just stumbled upon this article from Time about a nonprofit selling to a for-profit in order to scale, somewhat relevant to our discussion just now:,28804,1877020_1877030_1883902,00.html

I agree with you that nonprofits and for-profits face different challenges to scale. But there’s two questions here that I think we’re confusing:

1) What is scale?
2) How do we achieve scale?

I’m ok with Frumkin trying to answer the second question, but if he’s trying to redefine the first, I don’t think I’m willing to give up my definition of scale, which has always been about widespread social change.

scott c
April 9, 2009

Interesting post and I like your response to Tony’s comment Nell. Hopefully as models for scale emerge social entrepreneurs will stay focused on impact more than scale. For-profit enterprises usually scale to meet shareholder ROI objectives. Especially if debt and/or operating leverage can be used, shareholders will see greater equity returns from a larger organization. As you point out, for a social venture impact against mission is a more appropriate objective than is scale. The fact that impact is a more complex goal than scale should remain a prominent part of the discussion, especially as entrepreneurs move more freely from profit maximizing businesses to social business or philanthropy.

Nell Edgington
April 13, 2009

I think you make a very valid point, Tony. I agree with you that the definition of scale has to be broader. It’s not just a lasting and significant impact, but it has to be widespread as well, which is what I mean when I talk about scale changing a crumbling institution or system. Scale to me means that something signficant has been changed at its core. The American education system, for example. The article on RealBenefits was very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I think it is exciting that we are broadening the ways that scale can happen. If a nonprofit must become profitable in order to achieve scale then so be it.

Nell Edgington
April 13, 2009

Thanks Scott. Yes, impact has to be the ultimate goal. You can’t scale for scale’s sake. I think Tony’s article above on RealBenefits makes this point very well. The organization found a way to scale in order to best deliver the impact they wanted to achieve. For them it meant going for-profit.

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