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Bringing Small Nonprofits to Scale

By Nell Edgington

English at Work could be a poster child for social innovation in the nonprofit sector. An Echoing Green fellow, founder Maile Broccoli-Hickey is a social entrepreneur, but like most of them, she doesn’t even know it. Her tireless work to build an organization that can effectively and efficiently transform the English language skills of hotel and restaurant workers is a model to other nonprofits who have a great solution, but lack the capacity and strategy to grow it.

Maile started English at Work in 2004 when she was a waitress in an Austin, Texas restaurant. She realized that her co-workers needed customized English language instruction to ensure their and their employers’ success. Why not bring customized English classes to the workplace in a focused and systematic way? These courses, paid for largely by restaurant and hotel owners who see the value in having a more fluent workforce, get dramatic results. English at Work creates greater proficiency and fluency gains in a shorter amount than their closest ESL instruction rivals. The program works so well because it is a win-win. Students become more fluent and successful at work, paving the way for promotions and a way out of poverty. Employers get more productive, loyal and customer-service oriented employees.

But like most nonprofit organizations hit hard by the recession, a year ago English at Work was struggling to make ends meet. Although employers paid for the classes, those fees didn’t cover all organization costs. The additional necessary revenue came from individual donations and foundation grants, both hit hard by the recession. At the same time Maile knew that the program had the potential to transform the lives of so many more people. Despite financial troubles, she had big visions for growth.

With funding from a couple of key donors who understood the value of investing in infrastructure, capacity and planning, Maile enlisted Social Velocity to determine what was holding the organization back and to create a comprehensive revenue plan to get the organization on firm financial footing. Over the first two months of the engagement we interviewed board and staff members and reviewed all organization policies, by-laws, finances, collateral, plans and documents. We then created a detailed analysis of each area of the organization (strategy, program, finances, marketing, staffing, board, etc.) with recommendations in each area for how the organization could be more effective. Once completed, we worked closely with Maile over the next 3 months to create a detailed plan for increasing how money flowed to the organization from individuals, foundations, corporations and earned revenue. Finally, we trained English at Work staff and board on raising money.

Now that English at Work is on much firmer financial ground, they are ready to plan for growth, and so we are in the midst of creating a strategic plan for significant growth of the program. The hope is to take this great solution and bring it to scale.

English at Work is a great example of the many little-known nonprofit organizations that toil away under the radar. They may have a fabulous model for creating real change, but lack the infrastructure, capacity and strategy to grow their impact to scale. Although the Social Innovation Fund and other venture philanthropy funds that exist to bring solutions to scale are great, no ecosystem exists for the smaller nonprofits that may have equally important solutions. But there is a way. By combining a few key donors who understand the bigger picture, a smart strategy for growth and sustainability, and a determination to execute effectively, even the smallest nonprofits with a great solution and a vision for growth can get there.

Photo Credit: English at Work

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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.

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