How Do You Create a New Normal? A Three-Part Path to Scale

At Social Impact Exchange, a forum dedicated to scaling high-impact social programs, investors wanted to know “How will your idea achieve scale?”

Social innovators wrestling with the idea of systems change don’t get far without being asked, “How will your idea achieve scale?” That’s exactly what a group of investors wanted to know last week at Social Impact Exchange, a forum dedicated to scaling high-impact social programs.

Scale is not for everyone. Just as not all for-profits are destined to grow nationally, not all nonprofits should feel this is the Holy Grail. But for those of us who do choose this path, there is a lot to consider in determining how to define scale and how to get there.

As an example, fifteen years ago, Playworks was born out of a simple insight: As goes recess, so goes the school day. When kids have a great recess, they get more out of class time and treat fellow students with empathy and respect. When they don’t, you see more disciplinary problems and less focus in the classroom. Playworks focuses on protecting and promoting a great recess to create a positive learning environment.

The organization’s vision is for every child in America to play every day. But there are more than 60,000 public elementary schools in the U.S., and Playworks will never be big enough to serve each individually.

Instead, it aims to change the education system itself, relying on a three-part path to scale: Flagship, Broad Adoption and New Normal.

Because play is not universally valued as essential to education, it was critical to first establish the gold standard of recess in 27 cities nationwide. Why 27? Because major league sports have figured out it takes between 25 and 30 cities to capture a share of the national mind space.

In this phase, careful management of the cities and strict adherence to the model is key to success. The Playworks direct service model relies on sending full-time, well-trained staff into schools to coordinate opportunities for play at recess and throughout the school day.

Broad Adoption
The strategy used by Playworks to achieve Broad Adoption is training and technical assistance. While the Flagship model generally has more direct impact, it also requires significant fundraising. Playworks’ trainings, in contrast, cover their own costs. As the organization nears the end of the Flagship phase, it’s been testing models of training and support to identify products that best convey its approach and enable schools to coordinate an amazing recess on their own.

The new challenge is figuring out how to sell these products. Shifting organizational focus from a phase that relies on management to a new phase emphasizing sales is challenging, but it feels critical to success in this new mode of operations.

New Normal
While Flagship impacts hundreds of schools and Broad Adoption impacts thousands of schools, it is only in a New Normal that we really change the system, with tens of thousands of schools valuing play as essential to their success.

For Playworks, this requires supporting a network of hundreds of thousands of parents and teachers to ensure that all kids get their daily allowance of play in schools. In this final phase, Playworks is anticipating that the most important capacity will be communications, and the ability to build and rally a movement.

For social innovators with an idea that is positioned to scale, taking time to drill down on what that means for your idea specifically and then mapping out a path to scale that reflects this understanding is essential. Proven solutions to the major challenges facing us as a society already exist. We need to begin thinking more critically about what it takes to scale these ideas, and invest accordingly.

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  • BY Jan Lightfoot Hospitality House Inc. (Maine)

    ON June 21, 2011 09:49 AM

    Jill Vialet: Your organization sounds great. While you personally cannot serve over 60,000 public schools in the USA. Your ideas can.
    I level and will steal you prase the “new normal” for me it means an economy of enough that all are paid their unavoidable bills. We work to end poverty. Ideas must change. When Christ was asked how much do we give to the poor? He told the student “Give the full need.” We at Hospitality House think this is the answer. Something never tried. It is time THIS Becomes the new nornmal.

    We at theMaine Non profit, also believe it when the US Labor dept. exclaims, a mere 30% are at a livable wage. Only we believe there number at livable wage is higher then in reality. But using the governments official claim, that means 70% of American workers and their families earn less the avoidable amount of their basic bills. In my book, the real livable wage where you can afford all of lives basic’s that IS THE POVERTY LEVEL. The poverty level is where you can pay all your monthly and yearly bills, insurance, rent, healthy food, beauty and household supplies, transportation. repairs, telephone, electric, and recreation as cable T.V.

    To get this idea into the heads of the populace, will give hungrer kids, kids of minorities as races a better day. Treating everyone like they are worthy of enough to buy a new baseball glove will end bullying, and give those picked on the most better esteem. I look Forward to other articles by you.  I enticapate the exchange of ideas. I have laid out some off the ideas getting to the stolen phrase of the “new normal” at Thank you for that phrase.

    Ideas are what create the quality of our soceity. If our actions say you are not worty of being treated as even an animal, we tell those in gang they are worthless. Then they beleive all lives are worthless. Or we reap what we sow.

    If we say there is enough resources that all workers,welfare moms, the disabled she be paid the full need, the new normal, would say all human beings are valuable-Give them the need. It is torment to pay workers less than the need. The costs of simple Gifts for those we love should not break the budget.

  • BY Tim Tabernik, President, Hatchuel Tabernik & A

    ON June 21, 2011 05:53 PM

    Whenever I talk with our nonprofit clients and funder colleagues, I find myself using the Playworks story as a model. You have remained clear about your vision and about the importance of quality as you have scaled up to a national level. We at HTA are honored to have been a part of this trajectory and we wish you continued success as you help to transform the US educational system to honor play.

  • Kathryn Papp, Independent nonprofit consultant's avatar

    BY Kathryn Papp, Independent nonprofit consultant

    ON June 22, 2011 02:24 PM

    The idea or concept of “scale” is borrowed from the science community, ecology.  It is an awkward fit to the idea of creating a critical mass of nonprofit activity that can change broad swaths of social behaviors.

    It is better to think in terms of replicating the key elements of the program, and where they are AND then concentrating very hard on networking these projects and complementary organizations and groups that support and work around them.

    Build a highly networked ecosystem of organizations with the same ideals ... and connect them to those organizations that functionally support them.  Talk about it.  Make an iterative story.  This is where you get the explosion.  Scale is a noun ...

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