The expectations placed on organizations looking for funding to scale their impact have never been greater. Evidence-based grantmaking, a demand for more and more data, limited resources, and the need to standardize program models developed amid complex and nuanced circumstances can make scaling seem like a distant dream for organizations refining their models and starting to think about replication. 

Thankfully, for those organizations, and for funders considering investments in scaling promising initiatives, there is a base of organizations that have succeeded in raising funds explicitly to scale. A look at several of these—all funded as subgrantees through the White House Social Innovation Fund (SIF)—offers five important programmatic lessons in scaling impact.

1. Look for gaps in current services, and choose to serve an un-served or underserved population. At any scale, initiatives that fill service gaps have the potential to make a real difference; they often lead directly to improved outcomes for the targeted individuals, more stable communities, and even broad financial returns—impacts and returns that amplify as organizations scale.

As an example, the sheer number of today’s 6.7 million American “opportunity youth”—youth ages 16-24 who are not on a career or educational pathway—is evidence of how ineffectively existing initiatives have served this population. Failure to engage this group has tremendous costs—first and foremost for the youth themselves, but also for society and taxpayers. A 2012 report finds that each youth will impose costs of $704,020 on society in their lifetime—a total of $4.75 trillion for today’s opportunity youth. Organizations like Urban Alliance—a nonprofit working to reconnect these under-resourced youth through job, education, and mentoring services in communities across the country—specifically aim to reconnect these youth, yielding positive outcomes for program participants and broader social returns. Since 2011, program alumni from just three cities—Chicago, Washington, DC, and Baltimore—have enrolled in colleges across 35 states, literally expanding the geographic area across which the social returns from investing in these youth can be seen. Those working to build a program that can have the greatest impact at scale might consider looking at issues, sectors, communities, or demographic populations where services are sparse, ineffective, or not being delivered.

2. Consider scaling just one portion of an existing model. While multi-service organizations must be mindful of interdependencies between programs, Bridgespan consultants Jeffrey Bradach and Abe Grindle identify the potential value in selecting and scaling only select components of multifaceted programming. 

One organization taking this approach is the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina (CHS), which offers a comprehensive set of child welfare and family support services—including adoption, pregnancy prevention, family education, and family preservation and reunification services. CHS is using its SIF funding to prove and expand just two of its programs—Wise Guys, a teen pregnancy prevention program, and Family Finding, which helps youth build effective support systems. In 2012, this increased focus helped CHS expand Family Finding and Wise Guys to 11 and 6 new counties, respectively, and more than triple the number of youth it reached in the previous year.

3. Undertake multiple approaches to scale impact. The International Center for Social Franchising highlights three distinct types of social impact replication: the wholly owned expansion of programs, affiliation with other organizations that will replicate an innovation, and dissemination of knowledge. Combining these types of replication can amplify the impact of lessons learned from program implementation, allowing all service providers to deepen their institutional knowledge, learn from each other, and improve their approaches. 

The Latin American Youth Center (LAYC)—an organization empowering youth to successfully transition to adulthood in the Washington, DC, region—is undertaking all three types of replication. A SIF subgrantee, LAYC is expanding its own programming into DC Public Schools and the Maryland suburbs; training other organizations to adopt and adapt its signature mentoring program, the Promotor Pathway; and sharing best practices with a network of six organizations working toward similar goals across the region. Simultaneously expanding its own programs, partnering with others, and sharing best practices allows LAYC and its partners to engage in a kinesthetic group-learning process, generating institutional knowledge for each organization, improvements on the initial model, and lessons for the broader social impact field. 

4. Take advantage of the strengths of the private, public, and nonprofit sectors—and initiatives that span them. Today, the lines between the private, nonprofit, and public sectors are blurring, and new classes of organizations such as benefit corporations and LC3s abound. For-profit and nonprofit business models alike are recognizing the benefit of pursuing shared value through financial and social goals and metrics. And where the lines do not necessarily blur, strategic social partnerships enable entities in different sectors to align their efforts toward common social goals. 

For example, New York City’s Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), which provides employment reentry services for people with criminal backgrounds, is expanding its operations to California through cross-sector collaborations. The partnership involves a third-party nonprofit provider that will implement CEO’s model, a commitment from the state transportation agency CalTrans to provide jobs, and placement services with private sector partners. With a firm grip on its social justice roots, nonprofit CEO is making the most of limited resources through cross-sector collaborations that exploit the advantages of all three sectors. 

5. Recognize the importance of metrics and data, but remember that they don’t tell the whole story. Today’s general movement toward evidence-based grantmaking has made the use of data to prove and improve the approaches of social enterprises a near-necessity. 

While some social sector organizations may be behind their business counterparts in collecting and analyzing big data, LAYC is emerging as a leader at the forefront of this space for integrating the use of data throughout its operations and analyzing that data to improve its approach. Improvements to date include expanding its programming into the Maryland suburbs to better serve its target population. But as Lori Kaplan, president and CEO of LAYC, reminds us: “There is a part of the story not told by data.” There is a tension, she cautions, between the drive to measure discrete outcomes, and the social sector’s bent toward producing a multiplicity of outcomes, transforming lives, and systems change. So while data and metrics play a vital role in program monitoring, evaluation, and improvement, social sector leaders should keep in mind the more holistic outcomes that specific metrics may not capture. 

Discussions around scaling organizations and impact often revolve around an elite and established group of organizations—such as City Year, KaBOOM!, and Year Up. These serve as tremendous examples of organizations making a difference, but their evidence bases and funding levels are far from what other social sector organizations expect to achieve. Funders looking to support new efforts to scale, organizations beginning to think about program replication, and the social impact community at large can gain insight from the examples of the SIF subgrantees highlighted above—all evidence that, with the right programmatic structure and approach, scaling impact may not be as far off as it seems.

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