Don’t Just Scale, Retrofit!

Most nonprofits are more apt to benefit from retrofitting rather than scaling strategies.

Attending the Social Impact Exchange 2012 Conference on Scaling Impact last month was a professional treat. Immersing myself in a community of funders, intermediary and nonprofit leaders, and academics to discuss, as SIE put it, “innovative methods to support high-impact nonprofit initiatives that are scaling their impact” was invigorating. The nation’s leading social innovation leaders attended, including many Stanford Social Innovation Review contributors.

The conference was in my own backyard, New York City, so I was able to step in and out of the conference to visit a couple of clients—traditional, mid-sized human service organizations similar to many other nonprofits we see in urban and rural communities throughout the United States. As we discussed some of the central themes at the conference—scaling, social impact, and capital acquisition—they seemed somewhat interested, but largely, they responded as if I were discussing aspects of the field that were outside of their everyday spaces. 

Scaling what works is one of the more important dialogues that the sector is and should be having, but another, perhaps more important, discussion is missing: How can we help nonprofits develop “retrofit” strategies?

What is retrofitting?

Retrofitting is taking actions to update old or outdated processes or structures. In the world of energy efficiency, retrofitting means updating older structures so that they are more environmentally efficient. (The best presentation I’ve seen on retrofitting is architect Ellen Dunham-Jones’s TED Talk on retrofitting the American suburb—rehabilitating dying malls, re-inhabiting dead big-box stores, and transforming parking lots into wetlands.) In the nonprofit world, retrofit strategies can include recalibrating programs, augmenting business models, and crafting new partnerships that create meaningful impact.

Why should nonprofits develop retrofit strategies?

As we look at the approximately 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, and third sector and civil society organizations abroad, only a small percentage of organizations fit into the scalable category. The Social Impact Exchange’s new report, “Scaling Social Impact: A Literature Toolkit for Funders,” outlines the four stages of effective scaling:

  1. Assessment: Evidence of Efficacy and Readiness to Scale
  2. Business Model Development: Strategy for Scaling and Growth Business Plan
  3. Implementation and Roll-Out
  4. Evaluation and Ongoing Improvements

While this is a perfect implementation process, only a small number of nonprofits could successfully scale this way. Most nonprofits are not in the position to work through these stages methodically—they are busy working to deliver quality services on a day-to-day basis, with the hope that they will grow their capacity enough to maintain their services and possibly serve a little more.

In a recent SSIR article “Local Forces for Good,” Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod-Grant write, “Of the more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States, the vast majority are local groups striving to achieve maximum results while operating on budgets well under $1 million. Most aim to deepen their impact within their local community, rather than increase their reach by scaling up nationally.”

Most nonprofits are more apt to benefit from retrofitting rather than scaling strategies. In fact, the scaling community may be part of these organization’s problems. In Newark, NJ, today, for example, many national organizations have invested time and money in planting a seed in the Newark community, and these seeds have overshadowed many existing, long-serving organizations. It begs the question: Would communities be better served if the resources that go into new scaling efforts were instead concentrated on retrofitting?

The next post in this series will explore several areas where retrofit strategies can work best.

Read more stories by John Brothers.