Scaling Impact

How to get 100x the results with 2x the organization.

Fifteen years ago, I started doing research on the challenges of taking nonprofits to scale. The topic was still under the radar both in the university and out in the field. My focus was growth through replication, and when I presented papers and case studies, nonprofit audiences often dismissed the ideas as “too corporate.” As one audience member said to me: “We are not McDonald’s. You cannot use a cookie cutter to replicate the work we do.”

At almost exactly the same time, however, social entrepreneurs began developing new models for expanding organizations through replication in new locations. Their organizations grew to become nationally recognized nonprofits such as Teach for America and Habitat for Humanity, as well as internationally known nongovernmental organizations such as Bangladesh-based BRAC. These organizations have found that scaling is anything but an exercise in cutting cookies, as it requires not only fidelity to core processes and programs, but also constant adjustments to local needs and resources.

Today, there may be no idea with greater currency in the social sector than “scaling what works.” In its first year, the Obama administration announced several multimillion- or billion-dollar programs that focus on expanding proven-effective programs to new locations. As the president put it, “Instead of wasting taxpayer money on programs that are obsolete or ineffective, government should be seeking out creative, results-oriented programs … and helping them replicate their efforts across America.”

This effort builds on the work of innovative social entrepreneurs and represents an opportunity to address some of society’s most intractable problems. At the same time, however, nonprofit leaders and philanthropists are searching for ways to scale impact beyond adding sites. Put simply, the question now is “How can we get 100x the impact with only a 2x change in the size of the organization?”

Because this way of thinking about growth is quite new, social entrepreneurs are still figuring out the best ways to scale impact. But pioneers have identified some tools and strategies that expand the impact of organizations well beyond what their size would seem capable of generating.


Many organizations are using the Web to expand their impact without increasing their numbers of boots on the ground. In these so-called “bricks-to-clicks” models, they create toolkits and platforms that users can readily adopt. For example, KaBOOM! helps communities build new playgrounds for children. In its first 10 years, KaBOOM! built nearly 750 playgrounds. But its reach was partly limited by the number of staff it could deploy to each site.

Then KaBOOM! shifted from hands-on management to a Webbased platform that helps communities organize their projects. The result: approximately 4,000 more playgrounds in just three years. Similar bricks-to-clicks models are under way in mentoring, advocacy, and other fields.

Social media likewise hold much promise for scaling impact through knowledge sharing, network building, campaigns, and collaborations. Wikimedia is perhaps the most well-known social media outlet, with a global community of about 100,000 citizen-editors and 345 million unique visitors a month on Wikipedia. Another site, Ushahidi, founded in Kenya to expose election fraud, has been used to expose government violence in Iran and to locate trapped victims of the Haiti earthquake.


Early in the 20th century, service providers such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Goodwill Industries International, and the American Red Cross spread across the country through networks of local organizations. These large nonprofit networks ultimately became an important source of programming and services, especially for young people and the poor. Later in the century, another type of network, centered on local implementation of a common idea and model, emerged. The hospice movement and Alcoholics Anonymous both became major forces without a central organization driving their growth. Now, in the 21st century, another network model has taken shape. Enormous numbers of people are able to donate money, volunteer, advocate, and organize through Web sites and social networking technology.


Intermediaries play an important role in many fields by increasing the performance of constituent organizations and serving needs that extend beyond the capacity or interest of any one provider. The Microfinance Information Exchange (MIX), for instance, is an intermediary that is catalyzing the efforts of the microfinance industry. MIX supplies detailed financial and social performance information about microfinance institutions to potential investors, as well as to the institutions themselves. These data not only help individuals and organizations make wise decisions, but also strengthen the microfinance sector as a whole. Likewise, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) magnifies the efforts of community development organizations by connecting them to corporate, government, and philanthropic resources. LISC helps local organizations secure funding, change policy, and enlist technical and management assistance. As a result of its matchmaking, LISC has helped build 253,000 affordable homes, 38 million square feet of retail and community space, and 132 schools across the country.


A growing number of organizations are focusing their efforts on developing leaders who can then go on to pollinate a field. This is especially true in education, with Teach for America being the bestknown example. Another well-known organization, New Leaders for New Schools, selects and mentors promising school principals in yearlong residencies. Since its founding in 2001, the New York City-based nonprofit has trained 550 principals in nine cities. Evaluations show that schools led by New Leaders’ principals for at least three years graduate more students and make academic gains faster than comparable schools in their districts. Civic Ventures is following a similar path by creating avenues for talented people to enter the social sector later in their careers.


In addition to service, advocacy is a lever some nonprofits can pull to extend their impact through policy change. City Year attests to the power of blending advocacy with service. The organization places young people in yearlong missions as tutors, mentors, and role models. In 20 years it has grown to 20 sites engaging 1,500 young people each year. At the same time, an explicit part of City Year’s strategy has been to advocate for federal policies and funding for public service work. The organization was instrumental in the creation of the Corporation for National & Community Service (CNCS) in 1993 and, most recently, helped pass the Kennedy Serve America Act. By influencing how funds flow from government or private philanthropy, models that blend effective programs with advocacy offer pathways for dramatically scaling impact.


Some organizations are making widespread changes by using social marketing techniques to alter people’s perceptions of what’s acceptable. The designated driver campaign, designed by the Harvard Alcohol Project at the Harvard School of Public Health, followed the lead of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to change public attitudes toward driving under the influence. In addition to establishing local chapters for its designated driver campaign, the organization used media to shift attitudes and change expectations and behavior on a huge scale. Other arenas such as environment and education are likewise pursuing social marketing strategies.


Still other nonprofits are scaling impact by changing people’s notions of what’s possible. In microfinance, for example, nonprofits first encouraged for-profit companies to invest in unrecognized market segments. Some of these for-profit players are now creating self-sustaining markets among populations that they previously had not considered reachable, let alone desirable. Charter schools have similarly triggered changes in school districts across the country by demonstrating that change is possible—even in schools that people had all but given up on. The effects of their successes far outstrip the number of children they serve directly. For example, KIPP teaches 21,000 students in 82 schools, a minuscule number among the nearly 100,000 public schools in the United States. But by demonstrating that all kids can perform well if given a good education, KIPP and other charter organizations have transformed the debate about what people can and should hold schools accountable for.


Although these approaches are all about scaling impact, not organizations, almost all of them depend on the existence of a strong organization, whether it is an intermediary, a technology-based enterprise, or a single nonprofit organization with a very strong policy and advocacy team. Moreover, the levers for scaling impact are seen as peripheral to—oftentimes a distraction from—the missions of the organizations. Yet if we are to meet our most pressing social challenges, these new strategies and approaches will need to attract the same kind of investment that we now see flowing to organizations committed to replicating their offerings in new sites. Finding ways to scale an organization’s impact without scaling its size is the new frontier in the field of social innovation. If we can decipher the code on that problem, we will be able to affect the most critical challenges and opportunities facing society.

This article is adapted from the author’s foreword to Paul N. Bloom and Edward Skloot’s Scaling Social Impact: New Thinking (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, September 2010).

JEFFREY BRADACH is cofounder and managing partner of the Bridgespan Group. Before joining Bridgespan, he was on the faculty of the Harvard Business School.

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  • BY Geri Stengel

    ON May 26, 2010 05:00 PM

    The Social Impact Exchange is holding a [conference] around this very topic: Scaling social programs. At the conference, the winner of its business plan competition will be announced. I served a consultant coaching one entrant on ways to improve their plan in that competition. I am very excited about the many innovative solutions to both social problems and scaling that the competition evoked.

    Innovation is, of course, not enough. These social entrepreneurs also need funding, another area in which [innovation] is needed.

  • BY Layli Miller-Muro

    ON May 28, 2010 11:52 AM

    This article was very helpful.  We are in the midst of an effort to scale our services and replicate nationally and have found very few resources to inform our planning. Each organizational model for expansion is necessarily different, depending on their model for providing services, and I find very little in the area of legal services - particularly in the area of managing pro bono partnerships.

    In our case, the Tahirih Justice Center, for the past 14 years, has developed and refined a model for providing free holistic legal services on behalf of women and girls fleeing human rights abuses, which is highly effective (with a 99% success rate) and efficient (turning every dollar donated to us into five by leveraging pro bono attorney resources). With the management infrastructure in place to handle an exponential number of pro bono attorneys working on our behalf, we are in the process of expanding throughout the US and have now opened 2 additional offices (now in VA, MD, and TX).

    the Harvard Business Review City Year case study was very useful, but incomplete.  We have found few relevant resources to rely on to help in our national expansion process, our board and senior staff conducted interviews with 10 organizations that had expanded nationally to learn from their experiences.  We interviewed organizations like Girl Scouts, ACS, Catholic Charities, and Chick-a-filet to learn about their thoughts on centralization v. decentralization, how to maintain continuity of quality and culture, etc.

    I suspect that there are resources we are missing and would love to learn what else is out there that might help inform the growth of organizations wishing to replicate.

  • Scaling is hard - especially when you’re on such a tight budget.  I actually just wrote an article about Brand Scaling——in which I cover three low cost / high volume channels to do this on. 

    It’s really all about making the most out of your resources, and with the internet, there are definitely a lot more resources out there to leverage.  Of course, my article’s specifically on building the brand of a small-business, but when it comes to the non-profit sector, a lot of the challenges can be seen as similar.

  • BY Marc Dangeard

    ON June 10, 2010 11:14 PM

    Most people thinking about scaling are thinking about franchising. But you cannot cut and paste something that works somewhere into many other places, because it is a very limiting process. Who wants a world of MacDonalds and Startbucks?
    Rather you need to use the knowledge accumulated to empower other people in other places to do similar things but with their own local flavor.
    Entrepreneur Commons is designed with this basic principle in mind to promote a culture a collaboration and entrepreneurship, and I hope that this is how social entrepreneurs in general will consider scaling: invite others to experiment with a process that works, and let them adapt what works to their own local context. Then share best practices, as a feedback loop into the system.
    The risk otherwise is to impose a brand and IP that will limit creativity and ultimately limit the potential of what can be done locally to resolve the issues at hand.

  • BY Paul Hobcraft

    ON June 11, 2010 12:59 AM

    Social scaling is such a difficult ‘knot’ to undo. Replication contributes but the factors ‘in play’ in the different places need a high level of recognition within the scaling approach. Copying simply just can’t work. Different cultures, different conditions, different stakeholders all need to be brought into the process of scaling to extract the best from a model that seems to be an answer and on this platform add the critical local conditioners and aspects to make it work in that environment.

    Cracking the code to scaling is critical to extract the value from promising ventures and adapt them for the conditions being faced elsewhere. We need more discussion around this altogether

  • BY Victoria Vrana

    ON June 11, 2010 09:55 AM

    Fantastic article.  I wholeheartedly agree that there needs to be more research into and resource on the topic of scale for nonprofits, starting with definition.  We’ve tried to collect some on our site, including Jeff and Bridgespan’s early work:

    We’ve also written about some of the lessons Venture Philanthropy Partners has learned helping organizations scale:
    Growing What Works, Part I: May 2009
    Growing What Works, Part II: Dec 2009

    Also, our report: Greater than the Sum of Its Parts, Lessons on Regional Scale

    One of our greatest lessons echoes Jeff’s point: “Finding ways to scale an organization’s impact without scaling its size is the new frontier in the field of social innovation”.  From the experiences of our first portfolio, we’ve expanded our definition of scale to focus more on broader impact.  As our President and CEO, Carol Thompson Cole wrote in Growing What Works (Part 1):

    While we still believe reaching more children and youth in our community with proven and effective programs is critical, we have also learned that scale, for us, can be achieved in other ways as well.  Increasing outcomes—deepening, expanding, and/or improving programs—is an important part of scaling impact in our community. We have also found that some programs have great potential to disrupt a system, provide a new model for program delivery, and could be replicated by others, that while they themselves may not grow much more in numbers, scale could be achieved indirectly. A VPP investment usually has some combination of these approaches to scale.

  • BY Mario Morino

    ON June 11, 2010 10:13 AM

    Jeff, this is very well done and places the subject of “scaling what works” into a more constructive context and with a clearer perspective.  I have long been a critic of the view of “replication,” not because I do not believe organizations should expand to other areas of the world, but rather of the rather narrow view of how too many embarked on such expansion.  Your article appropriately points out the inherent complexity and how those who have done it have recognized this.  In other words, rather than “parachuting into a community to fit the community to one’s nonprofit’s model ,” leaders are gradually adjusting to “developing a base of support within the intended community, taking the time to understand the community’s assets and needs, and then fitting that nonprofit’s offerings to best meet those needs.”

    As I did with too many areas, although I always believed scaling was about impact, I did a poor job of communicating that my early years in Venture Philanthropy Partners.  Since those formative years, my view of scaling has more clearly evolved along the lines of what you outlined with, perhaps, a slight twist.  I believe organizations should, by definition, scale to impact (and that could mean being better and/or growing in scope), and even more importantly, they should scale to mission. In other words, the leadership should scale their organization in the way that best allows them to realize their intended purpose, fulfill their mission.

  • BY Melissa Richer

    ON June 14, 2010 06:35 AM

    Hey Jeff, Thank you so much for your thoughtful article, which has so many important takeaways. At Ayllu we work specifically on scaling the impact of social enterprises in developing countries. Ayllu maps business solutions to poverty worldwide and shares information that accelerates their growth. We maintain the largest map of social enterprises in developing countries, which we use to identify and spread best practices and scaling models such as microfranchising. Our goal is to facilitate scale by driving better decision-making, saving our sector millions of dollars every year. This month, Next Billion will begin hosting our public map, a searchable list of social enterprises accompanied by weekly blogging. We would love to get your thoughts on our approach to scaling impact.

    Regarding the article’s discussion of size vs. impact, I wonder how this affects social enterprises who must reach economies of sale through high volume, low margin sales? How can we help them scale their impact, maintain a reasonable size, but also recover their costs? Also, how does competition affect the social entrepreneurs you’ve seen who run social enterprises and have a profit motive? Lastly, I was wondering what your thoughts are on franchising, given that you mention it in the beginning but don’t discuss it too much later on. What do you think about Marc Dangeard’s comment?



  • BY Jack Heath

    ON June 15, 2010 04:48 PM

    Thanks for holding the line on the scaling issue Jeff!  I think it’s essential that when we are talking about scaling we don’t think just in geographic terms (i.e grow an existing service from one suburb or city to another) but that we also consider services that can go to scale from the getgo (eg web-based services).  At the risk of being self-serving, this is what we are looking to do with - through harnessing the power of the Internet and social media within a few years we can connect with millions of young Americans and elicit hope especially in those who might be wondering if life is worth living.  According to the 2007 CDC YRBS study, walk into your average American High School classroom and the chances are that two of the teens before you will attempt suicide in the coming year.  That’s an obscene statistic, one we must change, and one we can.  Traditional mental health services however connect with only a few in need and even less with minority populations.  On top of this, mental health budgets are under increasing pressure - Gov Schwarznegger has proposed a 60% reduction in funding for California.  With the advent of handheld devices now commonplace in some of the most underserved communities we can reach out to young people in ways that traditional services never could.  We can increase rates of help-seeking early on so that we don’t bear increased costs many years down the track.  In short, we now have unprecedented opportunities through technology to deliver prevention/early intervention models for relatively few dollars.  For what it’s worth, we were surprised recently to learn that a leading innovative grant maker viewed service delivery as being about face-to-face interactions only and that scaling was limited to geographic extension of services.  Given the pervasive access to technology by young people, policy makers and grant providers now need to think about the Internet/social media as a setting just as valid as the school or local community settings.  Finally I should declare that our entry to the US was based on a feasibility study by the Bridgespan Group.  Tks Jack

  • BY Tony Bowen

    ON June 16, 2010 11:12 AM

    Thanks for drawing attention to the diversity of approaches when it comes to scaling high-performing nonprofits. The comments from this article are a great testament to the buzz and excitement around this issue. While I’d argue that we shouldn’t simply throw away replication as a technique for increasing impact, we absolutely have to expand our thinking and gain clarity about what’s working and how to effectively go to scale. Over the next three years, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) will be working to tackle these issues.

    Through a new initiative, Scaling What Works, GEO will work to ensure funders and nonprofits have the tools, resources and skills needed to bring effective community programs to scale. GEO will support selected and potential intermediaries of the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) and also serve as an information broker, convener and liaison between the SIF and philanthropy. For GEO though, this effort is about much more than the Social Innovation Fund. We will be sharing what we’re learning about scaling, nonprofit financial sustainability, building an evidence based and other related topics with all grantmakers big and small, urban and rural and government and private to make sure thousands of nonprofits have the resources they need to effectively tackle our most pressing social problems. To learn more about GEO and Scaling What Works, please go to

  • BY Tim Glynn Burke

    ON June 23, 2010 07:37 AM

    I would like to suggest an additional channel for scaling social innovation that echoes the work that Tony Bowen wrote about: that laying the groundwork in communities, or building both a culture and an infrastructure of sorts for innovation and change might help grow the impact of both national and local efforts. 

    We explore these issues in more detail in our new book, which Jeff generously reviewed and made much better, The Power of Social Innovation (

    The WH Social Innovation Fund, Race to the Top, Louisiana’s Office of Social Entrepreneurship, and New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) innovation fund are public sector entities supporting the growth of social innovation.  There are also a number of nonprofit and philanthropic efforts that look to incubate and grow local innovations or to import/replicate outside innovations in their city: Boston’s Greenlight Fund,  Indianapolis’ Mind Trust, Virginia’s Phoenix Project, Portland’s Springboard Innovation, Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation, Durham’s Bull City Forward, and others, many of which have been highlighted in this journal.

    What might be missing in these efforts is a recognition that trying new ideas and then growing what works is not just a matter of testing and measuring and replicating.  There are political costs and risks involved for public and private funders: risk of failure and subsequent damage to one’s reputation, a public official’s fear of getting his/her name in the newspaper for the wrong reason, opposition from incumbent providers and other interest groups invested in the status quo, short political cycles, close social networks between local foundation, business, and nonprofit leadership, etc.

    Strong executive leadership from the President or a mayor can help create a culture of innovation, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg for example.

    But I think we need to better understand how mobilization and building political will around innovation and change can also loosen the soil for growing social innovation. Social media is probably part of the answer, but the solution is also likely to include more mechanisms for securing feedback from clients, making information on the performance of our existing problem solving efforts more public, and using our innovation infrastructure to support advocacy and mobilizing groups as we support service providers. Also the Knight Foundation, which supported our research, is funding some very interesting work around new vehicles for community engagement and its connection to social innovation.


  • BY Michael Edwards

    ON June 25, 2010 08:52 AM

    “Finding ways to scale an organization’s impact without scaling its size is the new frontier in the field of social innovation” - this may be true for the field of social innovation (and thank godness the penny has finally dropped) but it isn’t true for the field of social change and develpment as a whole, which has been working on this “frontier” for the last twenty years or so, generating a rich literature in the process. For a good early summary readers might want to check out “Making a Difference: NGOs and Development in a Changing World” that David Hulme and I edited way back in 1992 for Earthscan. Drawing from an international conference on “Scaling up NGO Impact in Development” held in 1991 and a large number of case studies from across the world, “Making a Difference” illustrates the many different paths to scaling-up that existed even then, and analyzes their strengths and weaknesses in way that seems to have gone missing in much of the literature on social innovation. Of course some of the cases now seem dated, but that analytic framework is just as useful today, especially in drawing attention to the trade-offs that exist between different strategies, and echoing some of the points in Jeff’s article above. It’s always good to recognize what we can learn from the past so that we don’t keep re-inventing the wheel.

  • BY Mazarine

    ON June 29, 2010 10:33 PM

    Dear Jeffrey,

    As a former organizer, Obama knows that there are some ineffective nonprofits out there, which, of course, we appreciate. I love the emphasis on scaling, but can we address some of the things which prevent scaling?

    Here are some tips:
    Encourage making mistakes! Many nonprofits forget this is how you create innovation.

    Invest in people not just with training, but actually make salaries attached to how long they have been there, and assessments of their job performance. Hire from within, and hire women, and people of color as leaders.

    Get better board members, and make it worth their while to keep an eagle eye on the organization’s leadership. Make them angel investors of the organization.

    Stop siloing, and encourage cross-cultural, cross-generational communication as a fundamental building block of your nonprofit. Weekly meetings. A staff newsletter. And most important: Training on Rankism.

    I have more ideas on how to scale nonprofits and heal their biggest assumptions here, would love to get your comment on it:



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