Big nonprofit networks like the Y-USA and 4-H have been serving children and families for more than a century by providing programs that meet community needs, such as summer camps and after-school programs. Once a network organization reaches a certain size, it gains the power to effect broad change; it also has a lot to sustain. Focus on ongoing operations too often crowds out analysis of changes in the very populations an organization exists to serve.

Our study of more than a score of longstanding networks showed that it takes courageous leaders to pause in the midst of doing good and ask: Can we do even better? And it takes compelling demographic and performance data to convince a far-flung staff that the good they are doing today may not be life-changing for individuals and communities at the heart of their mission. Yet some of these venerable organizations are doing just that and altering course, shifting from serving immediate needs to solving underlying problems, thanks to their willingness to act on data that show their constituents’ needs have, indeed, changed.

The results so far are promising enough that leaders of other large nonprofit networks likewise might consider using their strength and size to get at the root causes of their constituents’ needs.

What does it take for large organizations to shift gears? The Y and 4-H have found common cause in two strategies:

1. Ground transformation in history.

Leaders at 4-H (head, heart, hands, and health) have found their organization’s historic core of science programming holds the key to its 21st-century relevance.

In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences published a paper called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which showed a dire need to ground 21st-century American youth in science, technology, engineering, and math skills, or STEM. The paper described a looming crisis in US economic competitiveness if students continued to fall behind in STEM skills—a warning 4-H and its partners Cooperative Extension and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) took very seriously.

4-H was born in 1902 of a desire to connect new, university-developed agricultural technologies to family farms. The early clubs attracted the attention of the USDA, and by 1914 the USDA was backing 4-H as a national youth program supported by the community outreach efforts of 100-plus land-grant universities and America’s Cooperative Extension System. As a result, 4-H today has a century of experience with scientific systems, and collaboration with university professionals and community volunteers. For President and CEO of National 4-H Council Jennifer Sirangelo and other 4H leaders, that history suggested a way for the club to help address the STEM challenge. “[We] stepped up as a network to say there is a role for out-of-school time on this issue,” said Sirangelo.

4-H’s pivot from science as sub-text in its agricultural after-school activities to addressing the STEM challenge head-on took shape as 4-H Science, a program aimed at reaching one million kids over five years. State and local extension offices implement this new curriculum as they see fit at the community level, given local interests, but all aim to inspire kids to pursue studies and careers in STEM.

2. Anchor change in a defined approach, or defined results.

4-H developed its new STEM program such that offices could modify their implementation as long as they used common measures of success related to student attitudes, learning, and career goals, and held themselves accountable for the same set of outcomes.  

This approach has worked. A 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress survey found that 71 percent of eighth graders in 4-H Science reported liking science, compared to 50 percent of other eighth graders surveyed. Among twelfth graders who participated in 4-H Science, 77 percent said they wanted to have a science-related job after graduation—more than double the 37 percent reported among other twelfth graders.

Focusing on outcomes is just one promising path to 21st-century relevance. A second path involves network organizations effectively pivoting from serving needs to solving them by adopting existing programs with strong track records and applying a tried-and-true, step-by-step approach.

The Y-USA’s leaders, for example, learned in a 2008 branding study that there was a significant disconnect between staff perceptions of their impact on communities and the public’s perception. While most staff thought of their work as cause driven, less than 60 percent of the public had any idea of the Y’s purpose beyond providing recreational activities. “It was a cold shower for our organization,” said then-CEO Neil Nicoll. “But it was also just the thing to wake up leaders across the country to invest in deeper intentionality, and new programming and outreach.”

For one, leaders saw a need to refocus on scholastic achievement and preventing summer learning loss among low-income students by keeping them engaged when school wasn’t in session. Across its national network, the Y was already serving half a million low-income youth during the summer, largely through recreation programs. What if it could use its tremendous reach not simply to teach sports and crafts, but also to improve kids’ reading and math scores? That idea set senior managers on the hunt for programs that could improve learning outcomes and be implemented in a reasonably straightforward way across the Y’s network.

They identified two: Y-Readers, a guided reading and writing summer camp and after-school program developed internally by the Y in Charlotte, North Carolina, and BELL (Building Educated Leaders for Life), an independent literacy and numeracy program that had produced excellent results in a randomized trial. The Y has subsequently replicated the Charlotte program in close to 100 sites, and adapted and licensed the program from BELL, branding it Power Scholars Academy (at schools) and Power Scholars Academy Camp (at YMCA summer camps) and successfully piloting it in eight cities in 2014.

To support both scholastic achievement programs, the Y needed a scaling strategy that could deliver its approach with fidelity, measure outcomes, and keep improving across a very diverse network. This meant developing central capacity to support implementation at each site, building a data system to track and report progress, investing in training for local Y employees, and raising the money to support these new capabilities, both through grants and by convincing member organizations of the value of increasing dues. It also entailed a major cultural shift. “Evidence-based programs are much stricter on fidelity,” said Kevin Washington, the Y’s president and CEO. “There’s little opportunity for local Ys to innovate on the model. They can’t just say, ‘We want to do it our way.’”

The Y and 4-H are not alone in seeing and addressing a need for transforming how large nonprofit networks serve communities. Our study looked at more than a score of decades-old networks, and found half a dozen making notable progress in shifting their focus and interventions to solve 21st-century challenges. In the words of Don Floyd, the former 4-H CEO who set the organization’s transformation in motion, “The complexity of leading these networks is not for the faint of heart.” Yet business as usual is not a relevant option. For both the organizations involved and their beneficiaries, “the stakes could not be higher,” said Neil Nicoll, the father of the Y-USA’s pivot.

Given NGO networks’ vast infrastructure and deep relationships with thousands of communities, “They are our best hope for overcoming social challenges,” according to Nicoll. “Duplicating their capacity may not be possible. We have to transform them.”

Whether the networks reinvent themselves as social innovators or shoulder innovations developed by other social entrepreneurs, their leadership and involvement is critical to the cause.

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