There has been much talk lately about social innovation and scale, especially with the recent launch of the eponymous White House Fund to scale “what works.” But more attention has been paid to the social innovations themselves (i.e. interesting programs or organizations), than to innovative approaches in how to scale. At Monitor Institute, where I now work, we are particularly interested in the latter—including more networked approaches to scale, rather than traditional organizational growth. In our recent SSIR article, Working Wikily, you’ll find many examples of how nonprofits have used online and offline networks to scale their social impact.

So when we were asked last winter by the award-winning nonprofit KaBOOM! to help document how it has used online tools to scale its offline program model, we jumped at the chance. (KaBOOM! is a national nonprofit dedicated to saving play through engaging communities; creating dialogue; and providing tools, training and resources to build playgrounds across the United States.)

We spent several months studying KaBOOM!’s innovative approach to extract its lessons learned. The results are now published in a new case study called “Breaking New Ground: Using the Internet to Scale,” by Katherine Fulton and myself. Instead of taking a traditional nonprofit approach to growth or program replication, KaBOOM! has used the Internet to disseminate its model, empowering local communities to self-organize to build their own playgrounds. While the idea of giving away a nonprofit model itself isn’t new, KaBOOM! is one of the first nonprofits to take this approach online. 

And the results have been impressive. Through a suite of online tools—including a social networking site, online training, codified do-it-yourself content, and a Google Map mashup—KaBOOM! has empowered more than 6,000 thousand communities to self-organize and build local playgrounds in the past few years (far more than the 1,700 it has built directly in 15 years). In so doing, it has had more impact for less cost. In 2009, a dollar spent by the organization on online tools helped to improve 10 times as many neighborhoods as a dollar spent more directly on playground equipment. 

With assistance from KaBOOM! and input from several social media experts, we identified seven key lessons for nonprofits that want to use the Internet to evangelize their program model and increase their offline impact. To read these “lessons learned,” please download the case study.

While this approach hasn’t been without its challenges—the most significant of which has been finding a sustainable business model to support the online efforts—it has proven to be an effective way for KaBOOM! to scale its impact dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

What other examples have you seen of nonprofits using online platforms to disseminate real-world program models and encourage offline action?