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Wendy Kopp

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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Losing the Charity Mindset

Along with the burgeoning social entrepreneurship movement comes a bit of hubris that social entrepreneurs know better how to create social change than do the nonprofits that have been working toward social change for years.  Some social entrepreneurs argue that nonprofits are too set in their ways to embrace a new way of creating solutions.  I tend to disagree.  We can’t, nor should we, discount and dismiss an entire sector of people and organizations that have been working on social problems for centuries.  However, I do think that there are some things that nonprofits can learn from social entrepreneurs.  One of those is how to lose the charity mindset.

Nonprofits are sometimes referred to as “charities,” and it is a real misnomer.  But beyond semantics, the word, and more importantly the mindset, does a real disservice to organizations working toward change  A charity mindset is when an organization, its board, its funders or others promoting its work have a narrow view that the organization is benevolent, but not critical, to the world at large.  The charity mindset assumes that a nonprofit starts from the position of need, inadequacy, and burden, rather than a position of opportunity, strength, and effectiveness.  The charity mindset differs from a social entrepreneur mindset in a number of ways:

  • Symptoms vs. Solutions: A charity, by its very definition, exists to provide aid to the needy, not to solve the underlying cause of the need.  This is not to say that every nonprofit can work toward solving an underlying problem; there will always be organizations that exist simply to provide basic needs (food, shelter, safety, etc.).  But I wonder if too many nonprofit organizations view their work as residing in the “charity” camp, instead of working, as social entrepreneurs do, to understand the cause of the need and how how they may be able to attack and solve it.

  • Fundraising: A fundraiser in the charity mindset apologizes for the burden of asking someone for money, but a social entrepreneur offers investment opportunities to prospects.  Wendy Kopp from Teach for America went around evangelizing the Teach for America story and sought investors who wanted to get in on the ground level of an incredible opportunity to change the American public education system.

  • Investment in Infrastructure: Charities spend every last penny on the program and leave little money for building the organization.  Social entrepreneurs understand that it takes organizations, infrastructure, systems, and talent to effectively execute on a solution to a social problem.

  • Respect: Charities may be beloved by their supporters, but they may not garner a lot of respect from them.  Social entrepreneurs behave as equal partners with funders in creating solutions, and, as such, they command and receive real respect from investors, volunteers, partners and others.

  • True Costs:  Charities like to claim that as much money as possible goes to direct services, but social entrepreneurs recognize the true costs of their endeavors and are open and honest with funders about those costs.  In fact they demand that funders understand and support those true costs.

I think the old adage is true, people will treat you the way you ask to be treated.  If a nonprofit acts like a charity, people will treat it like one.  Nonprofits need to stand up and demand to be treated as critical, equal partners in creating solutions.


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