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The Bridgespan Group

The Tricky Work of Scaling Nonprofits

Social Impact ExchangeThe idea of “scale,” or growing to a point at which you are solving the underlying social problem, is a tricky one in the nonprofit sector and something that is a growing topic of conversation.

Jeff Bradach from The Bridgespan Group launched a new 8-week blog series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog last month about what he calls “Transformative Scale.”

Bradach asked leaders and thinkers in the scale movement – like Risa Lavizzo-Mourey from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Billy Shore from Share Our Strength, Wendy Kopp from Teach for All, and Nancy Lublin from Do Something – to contribute their insights to the series. Bradach is doing this because he believes we have not yet figured out how to grow solutions to a point at which they are actually solving problems. As he wrote in his kick-off post to the series:

Over the past couple of decades, leaders have developed a growing catalog of programs and practices that have real evidence of effectiveness. And they’ve demonstrated the ability to successfully replicate these to multiple cities, states, even nations in some cases, reaching thousands or even millions of those in need. Despite all this progress, today even the most impressive programs and field-based practices rarely reach more than a tiny fraction of the population in need. So we find ourselves at a crossroads. We have seen a burst of program innovation over the past two decades; we now need an equivalent burst of innovation in strategies for scaling.

One of the places where scale has been an on-going topic of conversation is the annual Social Impact Exchange’s Conference on Scaling Impact. Now in its fifth year, this conference next month in New York City brings together “funders, advisors and leaders to share knowledge, learn about co-funding opportunities and develop a community to help scale top initiatives and build the field.” The conference is organized, in part, by the Growth Philanthropy Network, which “is creating a philanthropic capital marketplace that provides funding and management assistance to help exceptional nonprofits scale-up regionally and nationally.”

I’m excited to be attending this year’s conference and participating in a panel called “Business Models for Sustainability at Scale.” From my perspective, one of the biggest hurdles to scale is a financial one. Very few nonprofits have yet figured out how to create a sustainable financial model, let alone how to create one at scale. And this hurdle exists for many reasons, including: lack of sufficient capital in the sector, lack of sufficient management and financial acumen among nonprofit leaders, an unwillingness among funders to recognize the full costs of operation. So I’m excited to be part of this important conversation about how we can actually create financially sustainable scale.

It will be interesting to see how the conversations at the Scaling Impact conference – led by rockstars in the field like Antony Bugg-Levine from the Nonprofit Finance Fund; Tonya Allen from the Skillman Foundation; Heather McLeod Grant, author of Forces for Good; Paul Carttar from The Bridgespan Group; and Amy Celep from Community Wealth Partners – will relate to the perspectives of those writing in the “Transformative Scale” blog series. I wonder where there will be overlap and where there will be disagreement or even controversy. Scale is an incredibly difficult nut to crack. And as Bradach rightly states, no one has figured it out yet.

I will be posting to the blog during the conference about what I’m hearing and where there are common threads or separate camps.

I hope to see you there!

Image Credit: Social Impact Exchange

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: April 2014

social innovationControversy about whether Millennials will spend money differently than their parents to create change, arguments for greater philanthropic risk, examples of innovation in the arts, use of “Moneyball” in conservation and policymaking efforts, and the lure of online media to create social change. What more could you want from a month of social innovation reading?

Below are my 10 favorite reads from April. Please add to the list in the comments. If you want to see a bigger list, follow me on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn, or Google+.

You can also see all of the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.

  1. Man, I love a good controversy. In April the Obama administration invited Millennial philanthropists to the White House to discuss next generation philanthropy. And The New York Times sent Millennial reporter (and heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune) to cover it. Well, Jim Newell from The Baffler doesn’t buy the argument that Millennials are going to use money differently than their predecessors. But Jed Emerson and Lindsay Norcott think Millennials will actually take impact investing mainstream.

  2. And staying on the controversy train just a bit longer, William Easterly takes issue with celebrity famine relief efforts that ignore (and potentially make worse) the lack of democracy causing famine in the first place.

  3. Because achieving scale is incredibly difficult work, Jeff Bradach from The Bridgespan Group launched an 8-week series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog exploring how we achieve it. 16 thought leaders will “weigh in with their insights, struggles, and questions regarding the challenge of achieving impact at a scale that actually solves problems.”

  4. It seems that the arts, perhaps more than other issue areas, are on the front lines of innovation in order to stay relevant. And this month really brought those struggles home. First, the Houston Grand Opera has seen dramatic growth in audiences, bucking a declining trend elsewhere, by appealing to broader audiences. Perhaps the San Diego Opera could have learned something from Houston since their declining audiences (and poor governance decisions) have put them in danger of closing their doors. And ever at the ready with examples of how arts organizations are innovating and adapting, ArtsFwd released two case studies on how the Woolly Mammoth and Denver Center Theater Companies have embraced adaptive change.

  5. What’s with Moneyball (the movie and book about using data to drive major league baseball strategy) everywhere lately? Using data and smart strategy the Nature Conservancy is getting more effective at conserving bird habitats.  And David Bornstein thinks the federal government is getting into the game as well with an increase in data-driven policy making.

  6. The Pew Research Center just released a book, and corresponding interactive site, about the changing demographic face of America and how it could affect everything, “Our population is becoming majority non-white at the same time a record share is going gray. Each of these shifts would by itself be the defining demographic story of its era. The fact that both are unfolding simultaneously has generated big generation gaps that will put stress on our politics, families, pocketbooks, entitlement programs and social cohesion.”

  7. Should philanthropy embrace more risk? Philanthropist Laurie Michaels founder of Open Road Alliance, which provides funding to help nonprofits overcome unforeseen roadblocks or leverage unanticipated opportunities, thinks so. Michael Zakaras interviews her in Forbes. As she puts it, “Very few people in the finance industry predicted the economic collapse in 2008, and yet we ask NGOs to submit a plan that will be stable for several years, which is an impossibility in the best of circumstance.” Amen!

  8. On the NPEngage blog, Raheel Gauba answers the fascinating question: “If Google were a nonprofit, what would its website look like?”

  9. And speaking of nonprofits online, the PhilanTopic blog released an infographic summarizing the 2014 M+R Benchmarks Study about nonprofit online activity.

  10. Moving on to other forms of media, I love what’s happening with video games and the innovators who are adapting them to help solve social problems. Who knew that playing Minecraft could actually change the world?

Photo Credit: Mikel Agirregabiria

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