Recognizing that poverty affects more than one billion children worldwide, Ashoka Fellow Jeroo Billimoria has made it her mission to provide children with the financial skills training they need to escape persistent poverty, prepare for productive lives, and begin to shape their own futures.

Calls from millions of children in India to ChildLine, a toll free 24-hour financial education helpline and counseling service that Billimoria founded, made it clear that children were being swept up in the cycle of poverty, and had no access to the skills or resources they needed to break out. In response, Billimoria conducted a pilot project to build the social and financial capabilities of poor kids. Once the curriculum was developed and the pilot was rolled out internationally, she made an important choice, opting to give the curriculum freely to partners around the world who share her mission. She engaged large networks focused on children’s issues to encourage them to integrate financial education into their existing programming. In effect, her strategy became to promote the adoption of a tool to increase financial literacy in children.

Traditional notions of how nonprofits expand their reach and impact tend to focus on growing organizations or replicating programs in more sites. Yet stories like these, which do not conform to traditional thinking, shaped the findings in GEO’s most recent publication, “Pathways to Grow Impact.” This report—constructed through a research partnership with Ashoka, Social Impact Exchange, Taproot Foundation, and TCC Group—delves into multiple ways to grow impact and offers practical tools for grantmakers on how to best support these efforts.

From the outset of the Scaling What Works initiative, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations recognized that many nonprofit organizations and social entrepreneurs are working in nontraditional ways to create more value for their communities. After all, if the ultimate objective is to transform lives by bringing the best solutions to more people who need them most, shouldn’t we take the broadest possible view on how to make that happen?

Survey data and interviews with Ashoka’s Globalizer Fellows illustrate why alternative approaches to growing impact are so important. Fellows reported running into problems when they focused on growing their organizations and budgets as a means of expanding impact. Their principal work became fundraising rather than mission execution, and they discovered that with every new location or beneficiary group, the complexity of the work increased at a rate faster than the organization could absorb.

Trust, partnership, and a collective commitment to reaching as many children as possible have been essential to the widespread implementation of Billimoria’s approach. Today the social and financial education program she developed has reached 1.3 million children in more than 94 countries, an achievement that was only possible because she looked beyond the walls of her own organization and collaborated with others.

By activating a network of people and organizations all over the world that shared her mission, Billimoria exponentially expanded the resources available to do the work. Her approach required that she prioritize what needs to happen to achieve what she set out to achieve rather than organizational interests. It’s a profound shift and one that is difficult to maintain when pressures from donors and other stakeholders reinforce a focus on organizational needs and interests.

Funders can be part of the solution by recognizing and actively supporting the shifts required to engage in strategies that rely on working with and through others. Leaders value funders who understand the importance of solving problems together and who are willing to invest in developing the necessary leadership, skills, and organizational culture to do so successfully.

Growing impact in combination with others requires leaders who are collaborative and outward facing. This means that they spend more time building relationships and learning about other organizations to find the common ground in their work. In some cases, grantmakers provide capacity-building support to cultivate these skills. At other times grantmaking might underwrite the additional staff capacity required to enable the organization’s leaders to spend more time building relationships outside of the organization. 

Nonprofits reported that it was helpful for funders to open up their own networks to grantees to help them find others who share their mission either by making specific introductions or by creating the space for natural collaborations to develop among the organizations they fund. A few funders explicitly support collective impact—defined by FSG’s John Kania and Mark Kramer as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.” Often this involves providing some crucial support to a backbone organization that coordinates the effort.

Philanthropy has a role to play in supporting a future that is not solely predicated on the work of single organizations, but encouraging a host of creative ways to advance a shared mission. Like Jeroo Billimoria’s journey, this requires openness to new ideas, partners, and tools that can help us to make more progress more quickly.