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.

Bob Giannino is the CEO of uAspire, a US-based nonprofit that 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. uAspire partners with high schools, community organizations, and colleges to provide college affordability advice to young people and their families. This year, the organization will reach more than 75,000 young people in 26 different states through direct service work, both on the ground and virtually.

In this Q&A with the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), as part of SSIR’s Nonprofit Management Institute, Giannino shares uAspire’s experience with scaling—including a training program for hundreds of practitioners who serve tens of thousands of students.

Bob Giannino.

SIF: How do you define scale?

Giannino: We define scale as taking something we do uniquely well or have singular expertise in—it could be an aspect of our work or a piece of our intellectual property—which is needed by a number of people (namely, young people and families) and distributing it efficiently and effectively to anyone that can benefit from it. We believe there are ample avenues to get our knowledge and expertise into the hands of those who need it and we’re constantly looking for the best way to get it there.

SIF: Describe how your organization is scaling/has scaled.

Giannino: At uAspire, we have taken two approaches to scaling:

  1. In a number of communities nationwide, we serve thousands of students each year through direct service work, in partnership with schools and community-based organizations, by placing our staff in those settings to deliver college-affordability counseling services. Through this work, we focus on building our partners’ capacity—allowing them to focus on what they do best—while we collaborate to connect with their students and families who most need our services.
  2. Our training and technical assistance model aims to train front-line practitioners of youth-serving organizations and schools—school guidance counselors, charter management organization (CMO) staff, student service staff at colleges, etc.—to provide them with the expertise, tools, and ongoing support needed to help their students and families find affordable paths to and through college. This year alone, we’ll train hundreds of practitioners who, in turn, will be better equipped to serve tens of thousands of students.

SIF: How did you know your organization was ready for scale? What advice do you have for organizations that are asking themselves the same question?

Giannino: There are three factors we consider when determining whether or not to scale:

  1. Are families, schools and communities in demand for the kind of work we’re focused on? Data pretty clearly suggests that young people from low-to-moderate income backgrounds are struggling to make college affordable.
  2. Is the broader public calling for solutions to the program we’re addressing? The call for solutions for fixing the problems with access and opportunity as it relates to higher education is loud and clear; through the news media, philanthropic leadership, and the Obama administration, our nation is talking about these issues almost daily. uAspire has been doing this work for more than 25 years, and it is great to have the national spotlight focused on achieving the same outcome: removing financial barriers to higher education.
  3. We needed to understand that we were having a positive impact on the young people we were already serving, and the data we collected showed that we were.

Organizations looking to scale should take a very critical look at their work, their program model, and their impact before tackling the question of scale. Ask yourself: Is what we do something that people need? Can we prove that it works and will have broader application? And, always, always, always see if anyone is already doing it and determine whether partnering might help them do it better.

SIF: What role did government play in helping your organization scale? What were the best parts and most challenging parts?

Giannino: The government has played a huge role in our work. As a SIF grantee, the government is challenging local communities to step up and match its investment in our work. The endorsement that comes from being a SIF grantee is a huge boost for uAspire.

Funds from the SIF are playing a significant role in our growth and expansion in the Bay Area, California, enabling us to launch programs in San Francisco and Oakland. We also have local government investment in our work in Massachusetts; this shows private investors how important this work is because local governments are giving some of their scarce resources to ensure that youth and families have our services.

The most challenging part of government investment, when it comes to the SIF, is tied to one of the most exciting aspects of that same investment—the research required to measure our program’s effectiveness. We’re thrilled that, along with its requirement that grantees engage in intense scientific standard research of our program model, the federal government will provide significant funds to support our doing so. At the same time, the use of public funds will require that the study’s results be fully public, and we’ll have little control over a number of factors relative to program delivery that could influence the final outcome. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on organizations to ensure that the design, implementation, and data-tracking systems are flawless—all while starting our work in an entirely new geography, with brand new partners and many other unknown variables at play.

SIF: What role did evidence of your impact play in your ability to scale?

Giannino: Evidence of impact prior to scaling is an important indicator of readiness for scale, and you need to be sure that what you do has impact on your end client. Prior to scaling, we did a good deal of research and evaluation that showed the promise of our work.

With proof that uAspire’s programming had measureable impact on the young people we served, we could take those results to philanthropic investors, community leaders, and likely school and community-organization partners to discuss how the work we did could help more youth and families.

SIF: How do you ensure the integrity of your program as scaling occurs?

Giannino: We are very focused on having a set of non-negotiables when it comes to our programming and its implementation, and we work hard to hold ourselves accountable. This includes being very particular about how we roll out new programming, whom and how we form partnerships, and recruiting and selecting the right staff.

We do not compromise on our principles. However, we need to remain open to customizing some elements of our approach based on where we are scaling. It’s important to be aware of what is unique about a particular place and how incorporating that uniqueness can benefit uAspire’s work in that community and beyond.

Read more about uAspire’s growth strategy here.