Making “What Works” Work for More People: Lessons in Scale from the Front Lines

Two nonprofit leaders share lessons on scale from the front lines.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to join SSIR’s Nonprofit Management Institute, a gathering of more than 300 social-sector leaders from across the country that focused on scaling for impact. As the director of the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a White House initiative and program of the Corporation for National and Community Service focused on scaling effective solutions, my team and I spend our days thinking about strategies to discover, develop, and grow community solutions that work. Scale is a critical and constant subject in this conversation, and there’s no shortage of writing about what it is and how to do it—or not do it—effectively.

At the SIF, we focus on proving, improving, and scaling solutions with meaningful evidence of impact to disrupt and displace stale, status quo, or ineffective models, and give communities their best chance to thrive.

Just last week we celebrated SIF’s fifth anniversary and announced more than $50 million in new grants to some of the nation’s most impactful organizations looking to strengthen communities and transform lives. All-in, we’ve invested more than $700 million along with our non-federal partners in more than 200 innovative, evidence-based nonprofits in 37 states and D.C. These organizations have expanded to hundreds of new locations serving hundreds of thousands more people, thanks to our focus on evaluation and scale.

In the past five years we’ve learned a great deal about the subject of scale. It can be transformative, it can move a community from 0-90 MPH on seemingly intractable issues in months’ time; it can excite and inspire networks, investors, and partners. But it is also ripe with challenges such as cost and speed, model fidelity, staff training, and community buy-in. We and our colleagues at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ Scaling What Works initiative have written about this much over the years. So it made sense to me that the best way to convey the challenges and opportunities associated with scaling effective solutions was to bring a couple colleagues to Stanford with me who have been on the frontlines of this issue for decades. Prior to the conference, I sat down with them to ask some questions, and I am excited to share the results of those interviews with you.

Bob Giannino joined Access, now uAspire, 20 years into the organization’s history and has grown it from one organization in one city to an organization with branches in three states and several cities—and it’s growing. uAspire, a SIF investment through the Greenlight Fund, works to ensure that all young people have the financial information and resources necessary to find an affordable path to and through a postsecondary education.

Lois Loofbourrow founded Summerbridge, now Breakthrough Collaborative, in San Francisco in 1978 and helped scale it to 35 locations nationwide before her retirement in 1995. She came back to the organization in the 2000s to help assess and improve programs nationwide. Breakthrough Collaborative increases academic opportunity for highly motivated, underserved students and puts them on the trajectory of a successful college path; it also inspires and develops the next generation of teachers and educational leaders.

Those in the social sector who are in the midst of scaling solutions or planning to do so will benefit greatly from reading Giannino’s and Loofbourrow’s candid thoughts on what they’ve learned through the years. One big takeaway for me: The commonalities between scale in the 1980s and 2000s are striking. The challenges are up for perennial debate, but the issues—and perhaps the tools to address them—seem to remain largely the same. If you’re planning to scale your organization, these are interviews you don’t want to miss.

Read SIF’s Q&A with Bob Giannino.
Read SIF’s Q&A with Lois Loofbourrow.