(Art by iStock/Aleutie) 

As a teenager in the early 1960s, Bill Strickland saw his inner city Pittsburgh neighborhood declining; the economy faltered, local businesses shut down, and crime increased. He turned to the potter’s wheel for hope and inspiration. In 1968, Strickland sought to share his inspiration with neighborhood youth by founding the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG), an afterschool arts program for at-risk kids.

In 1972, he was asked to take over the Bidwell Training Center (BTC), an adult vocational training program in the same community. Strickland transformed Bidwell’s traditional job training programs by developing innovative partnerships with local corporations. For example, he worked with H.J. Heinz to develop a culinary arts program to train students to be sous chefs, and he teamed with American Express on a program that taught students how to become travel agents.

Together, MCG and BTC allowed Strickland to attack the problems plaguing his community from two different angles – using art to teach and engage at-risk youth, while providing vocational training for displaced adults, equipping them with marketable job skills. In 1987, he built a 62,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility that houses both organizations and includes a jazz concert hall, classrooms, laboratories, and workshops.

Strickland’s vision for the synergies between two disparate programs, the entrepreneurial relationships he forged with the business community, and the first-class facilities he brought to an economically disadvantaged neighborhood were hailed as national models, and he was acclaimed as a new breed of “social entrepreneur,” receiving a MacArthur “genius award” in 1996. In 1998, he was recognized by the White House and also named a Kilby laureate for creating “a replicable model for enhancing the productivity of ‘at-risk’ youth using a unique experiential blend of fine arts, technology, and science.”

At that time, Strickland envisioned establishing 100 “franchises” across the country over 30 years. Yet, despite Strickland’s desire to see his innovations spread, the process has been difficult and slow. By 2003, Strickland had helped support serious efforts in several cities. A couple failed; one has been in progress for several years, but is not yet operational; another is just getting under way. Strickland has continued to innovate in Pittsburgh, but his “replicable model” has been very slow to reach new communities.1

Strickland’s experience illustrates an all too common challenge in the social sector: How can social entrepreneurs effectively scale their impact to reach the many people and communities that could benefit from their innovations? As policy expert and author Lisbeth Schorr observed: “We have learned to create the small exceptions that can change the lives of hundreds. But we have not learned how to make the exceptions the rule to change the lives of millions.”2 If we are serious about tackling social problems on a large scale, we need to develop more effective tools to address this challenge.

After several years of interviewing social entrepreneurs, foundation officers, and other experts on scale in the social sector,3 we have come to the conclusion that social entrepreneurs, foundation officers, and policymakers need to step back and take a more strategic and systematic approach to the question of how to spread social innovations. Too often, they frame the problem in terms of either “replication,” the diffusion and adoption of model social programs, or, more recently, “scaling up,” which commonly entails significant organizational growth and central coordination. While neither of these concepts is inherently ill-conceived, failure to place them within a broader strategic framework can blind social sector leaders to promising options and bias them toward a limited set of strategies. We hope to expand their conception of the possibilities by encouraging social entrepreneurs to consider different ways of both defining and spreading their innovations before determining whether and how to proceed. Our goal is to help them find the most promising strategies for achieving widespread and timely impact.

Defining an Innovation

It isn’t always obvious how social entrepreneurs should define their innovations to scale them most effectively. Take, for example, a learning center that has been exceptionally successful in teaching math to preschoolers. The potentially scalable innovation could be an organizational model for early childhood learning centers. Or possibly it’s programmatic – a powerful new math curriculum. Perhaps it’s a set of principles about how teachers, preschoolers, and parents interact. Before urging the creation of similar centers in other communities, the center leaders first need to think about how to define their social innovation for scale. What makes their approach distinctive? What is essential to their success? What internal or external factors play critical supporting roles? And what could possibly be changed without jeopardizing impact? If they think they have an innovation worth spreading, they must also consider how transferable it is. Will the core elements be as effective in different contexts? Are these elements easily communicated and understood? Are they reliant on rare skills or conditions? Asking these questions helps social entrepreneurs understand what is most effectively transferable and define their innovations for scale.

The preschool case illustrates the three most common forms for scaling social innovations that we have encountered. Some innovations spread as an organizational model – an overarching structure for mobilizing people and resources to serve a common purpose. Others spread in the form of a program – an integrated set of actions that serve a specific purpose. Finally, some innovations are framed in terms of principles – general guidelines and values about how to serve a given purpose. These forms are related and, in practice, the distinction between them often blurs. An organizational model commonly includes some program ideas. Programs are usually implemented by organizations, often requiring some organizational changes to run them effectively. And most principles have implications for how organizations or programs apply them. Yet, social entrepreneurs typically make a choice about how to package their innovations to spread them to new locations, and their choice tends to fall into one of these categories. They select a form or combination of forms and then decide how much detail is crucial for achieving success. A few examples should shed some light on the various possibilities.

Organization Lawyer Frederick Goff established the first community foundation in Cleveland in 1914. Aiming to create an organization that would be of permanent benefit to the community, Goff designed a new philanthropic intermediary that brought together the assets of individual donors under the control of community boards with direct knowledge of local charitable needs. By pooling resources, taking advantage of community expertise, and sharing overhead, this organizational model was an efficient alternative to traditional private foundations. Recognizing its potential value in any community, Goff traveled around the country to meet with community leaders and introduce them to the general concept of a community foundation. With local governance allowing for complete local autonomy and adaptation, Goff ’s efforts planted the seeds for the hundreds of community foundations that exist today as variations on his original model.4

Program Boot Camp for New Dads (BCND) was born in an Irvine, Calif., hospital in 1990. The concept was straightforward: “Veteran” father of four Greg Bishop trained “rookie” first-time dads, so that they would be more prepared fathers and gain confidence caring for their own babies. As concerns about fatherhood grew nationally, the workshops began to attract media attention, generating demand for similar programs in other communities. In response, Bishop designed a comprehensive program package to help hospitals, churches, military bases, and community organizations offer their own boot camps. For a onetime license fee, plus training costs, BCND now offers detailed guidelines for implementing a boot camp that cover everything from site and instructor selection to camera-ready print ads for marketing the program. BCND also provides training and certification for coaches, as well as a range of on-going support for program sites, including a Web site for sharing ideas. While not prescriptive, the program license package is highly specific and most sites follow it closely. This level of detail makes implementation easy for the local sponsors and helps assure the quality and success of the program, while still affording flexibility to adapt to local circumstances. Since its first replication in 1997 in North Dakota, BCND has spread to over 180 sites in 38 states and Japan. There are currently more than 300 coaches and 90,000 boot camp veterans.

Principles By recruiting, training, and supporting outstanding educators to open and run high-performing public schools in underserved communities, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is developing a network of schools that share a core set of general operating principles known as the Five Pillars. The first pillar, for example, is “High Expectations”:

KIPP schools have clearly defined and measurable high expectations for academic achievement and conduct that make no excuses based on the background of students. Students, parents, teachers, and staff create and reinforce a culture of achievement and support through a range of formal and informal rewards and consequences for academic performance and behavior.

While adherence to the pillars is measured by very specific expectations and goals, the principles themselves are general enough to allow for flexibility in how they are applied. According to KIPP’s 2002 business plan, “Rather than dictating how each of these schools should be operated, the Five Pillars serve as a framework that guides academic leadership and school culture to optimize student achievement. Each school is unique, reflecting the individuality of its community and the leadership style and education philosophy of its school leader. While every school has a culture of high expectations and a college preparatory focus, the Five Pillars are applied in various ways. For example, all KIPP schools require substantially more time [in class] and offer Saturday school, but their curricular offerings respond to divergent needs and interests.”5 Since 1994, the KIPP network of schools has grown from a program serving 50 fifthgraders in Houston to 32 public schools that reach over 4,000 students in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

It is important to keep in mind that while programs are typically more specific and principles more general, social entrepreneurs can define any form of innovation in very general or very specific terms. Innovations that are defined more generally often include fewer elements and less detail regarding implementation. They usually promote greater local autonomy, allowing more variability and flexibility in new locations. The most specific innovations are very prescriptive in nature, providing exact guidelines for potential adopters and often including numerous, detailed requirements for effective execution. It is not uncommon for scalable innovations to be defined in both general and specific terms; some elements may be very explicit and others more flexible. In thinking about how to define their innovations, social entrepreneurs should keep in mind Bridgespan Group co-founder and managing partner Jeffrey L. Bradach’s principle of “minimum critical specification” – aim to define the fewest elements possible to produce the desired impact.6 They can then ask whether defining any other elements generally or specifically would promote smoother implementation in new places by providing more than the bare essentials. The goal is to find a level of detail that is most effectively transferable.

Defining an innovation for scale is an iterative process. Some innovations may spread in multiple forms, and definitions may change to adapt to different circumstances or knowledge acquired as scaling efforts progress. Regardless, understanding the various forms an innovation can take should help social entrepreneurs determine what exactly it is that might be both worth spreading and effectively transferable to new locations.

Spreading the Impact

In addition to considering different ways of defining their innovations, social entrepreneurs should explore the various mechanisms for spreading their impact. Dissemination is actively providing information, and sometimes technical assistance, to others looking to bring an innovation to their community. Affiliation is a formal relationship defined by an ongoing agreement between two or more parties to be part of an identifiable network. Affiliate networks range from a loose coalition of organizations committed to the same goals, to tighter systems operating similar to business franchises. Affiliate agreements may have general or specific guidelines governing areas such as use of a common brand name, program content, funding responsibilities, and reporting requirements. Branching is the creation of local sites through one large organization, much like company- owned stores in the business world. Envision these mechanisms for spreading impact as a continuum, from dissemination to affiliation to branching, requiring an increasing degree of central coordination, and typically greater resources.

Dissemination This mechanism is the simplest and usually the least resource intensive, although the disseminating organization has little control over implementation in new locations. KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit fostering the development of safe, accessible play opportunities for kids, has utilized a dissemination strategy to dramatically extend its impact. In 1996, KaBOOM! joined forces with Home Depot and a local community to build its first playground in Washington, D.C. Since then, KaBOOM! has been directly involved in building or rehabilitating more than 600 playgrounds through its fee-for-service team build program, whereby companies pay KaBOOM! a fee to organize a daylong playground building event with company and community volunteers. However, if that were KaBOOM!’s only outlet, its impact would be limited by its capacity to oversee playground construction directly. KaBOOM! wanted to disseminate its approach more widely, and to this end, began offering a range of free or low-cost resources, from online tools and publications to training seminars and an annual KaBOOM! Playground Institute for those interested in building or rehabilitating local playgrounds. In this way, people can learn about the KaBOOM! program and benefit from its expertise, adapting and implementing the program locally, according to their needs. This “open source” approach has enabled the organization to spur others to build or rehabilitate playgrounds in thousands of communities both here and abroad, spreading KaBOOM!’s impact far beyond the 600-plus playgrounds it has been directly involved in building. “We give people access to enable them to use the model and independently replicate it,” explained Darell Hammond, co-founder and chief executive. “We feel that the best form of flattery is imitation; if people are inspired by our community build model, then through low-cost distribution, we can provide them with a recipe to use it.”7

Affiliation This approach offers the broadest range of possibilities. Consider the experience of Social Venture Partners (SVP), which began as a single organization in Seattle in 1997, and has grown into an international federation of 23 loosely affiliated organizations. Entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Paul Brainerd founded the original SVP in Seattle to engage individual philanthropists in donating their time, money, and expertise for partnerships with nonprofits. While not initially designed for replication, the organization’s model of engaged philanthropy attracted significant media attention and interest by other philanthropists who sought to establish SVP-like operations in their own communities. Initial replications occurred organically in places like Phoenix, Dallas, and Austin, Texas, with little formal involvement from SVP Seattle. As the number of independent organizations grew, a loose network was formed, bound together by the SVP name and a set of shared principles. Social Venture Partners International was created in 2001 to support and advance the local network and to build and maintain the SVP brand name. SVP International facilitates information exchange and sharing of “best practices,” allowing affiliates significant local autonomy. It protects the SVP brand through a licensing agreement, which allows affiliates to use the SVP name in exchange for adherence to shared mission and principles.8 At the other end of the spectrum is Dress for Success, an organization that provides donated suits to low-income women for job interviews and beginning employment. While this programmatic innovation is not very complex and should be relatively easy for others to implement in new communities, founder Nancy Lublin nonetheless decided upon a tightly controlled affiliation strategy. She felt brand consistency and awareness were critical to mobilizing resources for rapid expansion. Thus, every affiliate looks basically the same, operating the same well-defined programs through independently incorporated nonprofits that are members of the Dress for Success Worldwide network.9 Since dressing its first client in Harlem in 1996, Dress for Success has spread to more than 79 cities in the United States and abroad.

Branching This option offers the greatest potential for central coordination and generally requires the greatest investment of resources by the central organization. Branch structures are particularly attractive when successful implementation of the innovation depends on tight quality control, specific practices, knowledge that is not explicitly documented or readily communicated, and strong organizational cultures. However, branch organizations are not always highly centralized and can allow significant local autonomy. Take, for example, the Nature Conservancy, an Arlington, Va.-based environmental organization, with branch offices in all 50 states, the Virgin Islands, and 22 countries, from Australia to Venezuela. The Nature Conservancy’s growth in the last 50 years has hinged on an organizational model of decentralization. Former CEO John Sawhill’s “loose-tight” management philosophy meant granting local branches significant autonomy to foster organic growth, entrepreneurial activity, and dedicated local staff and volunteers. Yet he managed the organization’s overall strategy and values tightly to ensure that the conservancy as a whole was delivering on its mission – a philosophy embodied by Sawhill’s oft-used phrase “One Conservancy.”10 The branch structure, which allows the organization to be locally responsive while acting with a centrally coordinated conservation strategy, has helped the organization protect 116 million acres of valuable waters and lands worldwide.

Social entrepreneurs using any of these mechanisms may reach other communities through existing or newly created organizations, or both. While many innovations expand through organizations that already have an infrastructure and support base in place in the target communities, radical or disruptive innovations may be more successful with new organizations free of prior commitments, cultures, or clientele. Combining the possible mechanisms with the different forms for defining innovations yields numerous options that can form the core of a strategy for scaling social impact. Each will differ in the challenges it poses, and its potential to achieve widespread, timely impact. While some combinations might seem more intuitive, such as dissemination of principles or branching organizational models, we have seen virtually every combination during our research. Any combination is possible, and social entrepreneurs need to consider their options before settling on a specific strategy.

The “Five R’s”: Finding the Most Promising Strategy Faced with this wide range of options, how can social entrepreneurs find the path that is best for them? They can look to the Five R’s for guidance: Readiness, Receptivity, Resources, Risks, and Returns.

The initial exploration of scaling options begins and ends with considerations of readiness. First of all, is the innovation ready to be spread? There must be objective evidence of success that is not dependent on unique leadership or circumstances. Additionally, the driver of the scaling process must understand the innovation well enough to define it in a way that can be successfully transferred to other communities. What core elements of the innovation are critical to achieving the intended impact? If it is unclear, the innovation may not yet be ready to be spread or may just be ready for testing and refinement in a few select locations before promoting more widespread dissemination or adoption. But if the social entrepreneur feels fairly confident about the key drivers of the innovation’s success, the question is whether these core elements can be defined in a way that will be both effective and accepted in new locations.

This last question leads naturally into a consideration of receptivity – what strategy will best ensure that the innovation will be well-received in target communities? If an innovation is complex, represents a radical departure from accepted practice, threatens influential local parties, or clashes with dominant values or ideologies in different communities, it will likely be met with resistance. Locals may also resist adopting innovations if they are uncomfortable yielding ownership, control, or credit to outsiders. Are there reasons to anticipate resistance? If so, social entrepreneurs should generally favor strategies with less central coordination and less specifically defined innovations. Unfortunately, openness does not always translate into demand. Receptivity is also reflected in the demonstrated willingness locally to invest time, money, and energy to achieve the impact the innovation aims to create. Demand tends to be higher when key players in the community recognize an unmet need and perceive it as a priority. Without high local demand, it is extremely difficult to pursue dissemination and loose affiliation strategies effectively. When the need is high but demand is low, social entrepreneurs must find a path that does not require high levels of local investment or develop a strategy that increases demand. Beyond traditional marketing, local demand can be stimulated by positive media attention, favorable public policy, and even celebrity endorsements.

Assessing receptivity is an important starting point for thinking about resources. All scaling strategies, even the dissemination of principles, require incremental resources. Before committing to a specific strategy, social entrepreneurs should have a plausible resource plan in mind. What are the resource requirements for the strategies under consideration? Can the innovation be defined and spread in a way that reduces costs while preserving effectiveness? For instance, scaling through existing organizations or with the help of partners can lower costs. Once costs are understood, what are the opportunities to generate renewable and reliable revenue streams? Common approaches include charging fees to local sites for membership, training, technical assistance, licensing programs and materials, and other support services. If local demand is high enough, this approach may work. But it will only be successful if central organizations can deliver sufficient value and local sites can function effectively in implementing the innovation and attracting funds. If local demand is not high enough to cover all the costs of a particular strategy, including central activities, the gap must be filled. Foundation grants may be available to cover shortfalls for a few years, but it is risky to rely on them long term. More reliable longterm sources include building a large individual donor base or finding avenues to generate more earned income.

Social entrepreneurs must also consider risks to society and their organization. How likely is it that an innovation will be implemented incorrectly or will fail to achieve its intended impact? If this happens, what are the potential negative effects on the clients and communities being served? If the consequences are severe and the innovation is inherently difficult to execute correctly, central control through either branching or tight forms of affiliation will be more crucial. However, social entrepreneurs should recognize that risks to the central organization generally increase with these strategies since they often require greater investment of resources and more responsibility for local implementation. If failure occurs, branch and tight affiliate organizations will not only have wasted significant time, money, and resources, but their reputations and the credibility of their innovations will also suffer.

Once social entrepreneurs understand the risks associated with different strategies, they are ready to assess the potential returns – the scaling strategy’s bottom line. Impact is not just about serving more people and communities but about serving them well. What strategy will reach the most locations most effectively? While dissemination and loose affiliation strategies may reach more locations more quickly and at lower cost, these returns are only valuable if the innovation spreads in a form that delivers higher-quality services than already available. In some cases, greater coordination and slower expansion might be desirable to assure high-quality impact. Tighter affiliation and branching strategies can also enhance returns by improving organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Coordination may help to build a recognized brand, improve organizational learning, create more economies of scale, and transfer intangibles – such as culture and knowledge that is based on experience but difficult to communicate. These potential benefits may provide compelling support for tighter strategies, but an accurate picture of potential returns demands considering the costs of coordination, which generally requires more resources and takes longer. When the need is urgent and the risks are low, it may be wise to forgo the benefits of central coordination.

If at this point one or more scaling paths seem promising, then it is time to revisit readiness and consider organizational readiness. Spreading an innovation effectively requires skills quite different from those of local service delivery.11 Scaling can be a major investment of time, energy, and resources. Before settling on any particular strategy, social entrepreneurs must determine whether their organization, including their board, has the will and ability to develop the capabilities critical for executing a strategy successfully. If the organization is not ready, social entrepreneurs should consider ways to increase their organization’s readiness, create a new organization to support the scaling effort, or find an existing organization that might be able to effectively scale the innovation for them.

Learning How to Scale

Finding a strategy that aligns the R’s often involves a mixture of action, analysis, and refinement. It is an iterative process of learning and testing ideas. And as Dorothy Stoneman’s initial efforts to scale the job training and education program Youth- Build illustrate, developing a scaling strategy is anything but an armchair exercise.12

Stoneman was the executive director of a small public school in East Harlem, N.Y., in 1978 when she and a group of teenage students met to discuss how they could mobilize youth for positive change. They decided to rebuild an abandoned building in the neighborhood, working after school and on weekends. Soon after that project was under way, Stoneman was awarded a $250,000 grant to support a broad array of student-designed community projects. With Stoneman’s guidance, students developed seven diverse projects, collectively known as the Youth Action Program (YAP). According to Stoneman, all of the projects were “cutting edge,” inspired by the fresh perspective of the youth. But the Youth Action Restoration Crew, which had renovated an abandoned building, ultimately stood out as a particularly powerful experience for the youth and a highly visible improvement to the community. By 1983, as the crew was completing its first building, Stoneman was convinced that this innovative program was ready to spread beyond East Harlem.

She decided to focus on other New York City neighborhoods, and she set out to find a receptive audience and sufficient resources. At the time, Mayor Koch had unveiled a new program for disadvantaged workers to rehabilitate housing, and Stoneman thought she might be able to tap into this city funding stream to help spread her youth program. But she met resistance: City officials wanted to focus on adult employment, not afterschool youth programs. Undeterred, she and the youth leaders shared their idea with a number of other community-based organizations and found them highly receptive. Eventually, some 70 of these organizations joined with Stoneman to form a coalition to lobby the city government for $10 million for youth employment programs, including the replication of the Youth Action Restoration Crew.

They soon realized that in order to increase the demand among government officials, they would need to redefine their innovation to serve a need that was not already supported by public funds. So they drew up a proposal to transform the voluntary, afterschool leadership program for high school students into a comprehensive education and job training program for 16- to 24-year-old high school dropouts who read below an eighth-grade level – a group not then being served by government- supported programs. As with the original restoration crew, a central part of the program was putting the dropouts to work building or refurbishing affordable housing. But this new program also included a classroom component, requiring trainees to spend half of their time working on academic and life skills, helping them work toward a GED or high school diploma. The innovation redesign worked. Between 1984 and 1990, the coalition raised a total of $80 million from the city for six different educational and job training models, serving 20,000 New York City youth.

Stoneman initially adopted a scaling strategy based largely on dissemination. She believed that getting the funds and general program concepts into the hands of community groups would be enough to have an impact. At its peak in 1986, nine nonprofit organizations were replicating the program, but by 1988, only three replication efforts remained in operation. Stoneman saw that, when implemented well, the new program design was having dramatic impact serving disadvantaged young adults. It was ready to scale nationally. But, she also saw that spreading the program through dissemination or even loose affiliation did not work well. From Stoneman’s perspective, the failures stemmed from a lack of training and technical assistance, coupled with the absence of a handbook from which organizations could learn. To reduce the risks of failure, a central organization would have to take responsibility for standard setting, quality control, training, technical assistance, and program development. This organization could significantly increase the returns by coordinating a national fundraising coalition and serving as a source of support for local affiliates. Neither YAP nor the New York coalition had the necessary skills, structure, or geographic focus to take on this central role. So, with no other organization ready to fill this need, Stoneman established YouthBuild USA, a nonprofit support center incorporated in 1990 to orchestrate the national replication of the renamed YouthBuild program.

YouthBuild has continued to adjust its scaling strategy to keep it aligned with the Five R’s. And the returns have been strong. The program that started with one project in East Harlem now has operations at some 200 sites in 44 states. More than 25,000 youth have built more than 10,000 units of low-income housing nationwide. Sixty percent of program participants “graduate” from YouthBuild, and 83 percent of these graduates move on to college or full-time jobs. The New York Times called the YouthBuild movement “a wellspring of reclamation,” and Stoneman has been recognized for her efforts with a MacArthur “genius award” and the Independent Sector’s annual John W. Gardner Leadership Award.

Not all scaling efforts have the same level of success as YouthBuild or many of the other examples highlighted in this article. However, chances for success increase if social entrepreneurs consider the full range of options, make thoughtful decisions about how to define their innovation, select a promising scaling mechanism, and continuously refine and adapt their strategy with the Five R’s in mind.