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.

Lois Loofbourrow is the founder of US-based Breakthrough Collaborative (formerly Summerbridge), an innovative and sustainable academic model consisting of partnerships between “students teaching students” and “teachers training teachers.” Over the past 35 years, the organization has served more than 40,000 students and teachers in 27 cities.

In this interview with the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), as part of SSIR’s Nonprofit Management Institute, Lois reflects on the lessons she’s learned during her 30-plus years of scaling innovative academic programs. She reveals the kinds of data that an organization devoted to academic excellence should use in assessing its preparedness for scaling, and the partnerships and strategies that can promote success.

Lois Loofbourrow.

SIF: How do you define scale?

Lois Loofbourrow: For Breakthrough Collaborative, scaling is developing a depth and breadth in each program component to know we have a service that would be invaluable to other students and a service that is replicable.

Each component of our program must reflect our mission. Breakthrough Collaborative is a mission-driven and needs-responsive program. All students who enter and stay in the program will enter and thrive in rigorous academic high school programs. All who work at Breakthrough must see each student as an individual with particular needs and build a support system for the student when needed.

When considering scaling up, we needed to ensure that our data was sound and that our partnerships were working. I am a fan of Lisbeth Schorr’s work and read with interest Within Our Reach: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage, which analyzes the effectiveness of social programs. I agree with Schorr in that too many services we offer students and families do not do much! We must be really critical of our own programs before we tackle scaling.

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

Loofbourrow: Breakthrough Collaborative was founded in 1978 in San Francisco, California, as Summerbridge. The mission was pretty simple: to prepare predominantly inner-city middle school students for entry into rigorously academic college preparatory high school programs and mentor them into equally strong colleges.

Originally, when we began scaling our program, the intent was to run four programs across the country. After informally replicating from 1987 through 1990, we created Breakthrough Collaborative as a separate nonprofit, and by 1995, we had 35 programs nationwide.

Breakthrough Collaborative now serves more than 2,000 middle school students, and employs 700 college and high school students in 25 locations.

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?

Loofbourrow: Data: By our ninth year, we could state—without equivocation—that 92 percent of our students attended college prep programs and matriculated at four-year colleges, and 65 percent of the college students working in the program as tutors and teachers entered the field of education. Since 50 percent of our teachers were high school students, we did not include statistics about them.

Demand: Our local school district asked us to start a program for younger students, giving students in targeted locations a better chance of being ready to apply for their program when they became sixth graders. This local replication taught us important lessons on ensuring that there is a demand for services in locations where you are considering scaling.

Funding: Lastly, we received a $60,000 grant to write a synopsis of Summerbridge, describing the summer curriculum, field trip program school year tutorials, and a director’s manual on how to effectively fund a program. Later, we were the recipients of a $1,000,000 grant—the majority of which we gave as three-year matching grants to start ups—which was a significant amount of grant funds 30 years ago.

I would advise other organizations to ensure that they have evidence that supports readiness for growth. Figure out where there are gaps that can be filled. Ask yourself: Are we good enough? How can we do this better? Are we achieving and delivering on the promises we make?

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

Loofbourrow: Government grants, such as the Summer Service Grant, that we received allowed us to test what we were doing in a short but intense period of time. This was a pivotal point in our growth. We ran four summer sites in New Orleans. It led to a wonderful AmeriCorps group of students working with us over a period of years.

Though the Summer of Service was challenging—I felt that the students and young directors faced too much work without enough assistance and planning—the outcome of ensuring that students exceled in high school and matriculated to college was well worth this challenge.

Also, we were not used to the type of questions that government agencies ask. They seemed a bit cumbersome for a nonprofit of our magnitude; however, in hindsight, they helped prepare our organization for scaling up and dealing with larger donors.

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

Loofbourrow: Hard data and long-term outcomes of students going through the program were essential. The original mission of Summerbridge San Francisco and the Breakthrough programs was to ensure that our middle school students were prepared to enter and thrive in the most rigorous high school programs in the country.

Because we elected to grow a program with measurable outcomes and take a number of years to ensure that we knew what we were doing, we built out annual timelines for school year programming, student recruitment, teacher training, parent involvement, community partnerships, student evaluation, and academic counseling.

In the initial nine years of the program, we fine-tuned each component and measured its effectiveness against the mission. We were highly critical of ourselves, listened closely to our students, and took joy in seeing excellence abound.

SIF: What was different about scaling in the 1980s as compared to now?

Loofbourrow: Technology. When I reflect on my time at Breakthrough Collaborative, I realize that there were so many things that we could have done more efficiently if we had the technology that is available now.

Today, training and problem solving is a conference call away, an Internet training away. Most programs from the 1980s lost all their data with new systems and new leaders. This no longer needs to happen. Research and researchers are always nearby. Books and reports aren’t tossed, so reinventing is not a daily job.

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

Loofbourrow: In the 1970s, many people were saying, “If you are not part of the solution, then you are a part of the problem,” which meant that you were expected to get on board with whatever programs were trendy at the time. I think that is a bunch of crap. Some “great” programs are loved by many but don’t do anything measurable. Programs that are truly great should have strong, working partnerships.

The last thing that I wanted to do was to start a program that didn’t function well all for the sake of starting a program. If you run a program whose mission is to prepare students to enter high school and matriculate to college, then you must ensure that is exactly what your program is doing, especially as it scales.