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.

Flagship
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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