It Aint Easy But It’s Promising: Multiple Pathways to Scale

The Social Impact Exchange 2012 Conference on Scaling Impact kicked off today with a powerful panel on “Multiple Pathways to Scale Impact” moderated by Greg Dees, Professor of Social Entrepreneurship, Duke University, and included panelists John Kania, Managing Director, FSG; Christopher Langston, Program Director, The John A. Hartford Foundation; Jeannie Oakes, Director, Ford Foundation; and Abel Ortiz, Manager, Annie E. Casey Foundation. The foundations are tackling diverse issues including aging, juvenile justice, and public education.  However, they are all grappling with the questions of scaling what works. They all seemed to agree that it isn’t easy but clearly are learning some of the key elements for success.  Here are some of the main insights from the discussion:

Evidence is essential, but people need to be persuaded to change practices.

Christopher Langston shared the story of a demonstration project funded by the Hartford Foundation called Impact. It focuses on strengthening team-based approaches to serving the mental health needs of aging people.  It has been more than a decade since the demonstration ended and it has not scaled as much as he would like to see. While part of the problem is that the commitment to evidenced-based practices is not yet widespread, he thinks the challenge includes the need to provide persuasive evidence — not just data — to change behavior. To do this, we need stories of how real people (the service providers as well as those who benefit from the services) are catalyzing change behavior more broadly,

In addition to stories, a well considered communications strategy needs to be put in place. People are influenced by those who are important to them, so getting out the stories and key messages through appropriate networks is key.  Christopher believes that communications is an important additional expense. He remarked that in systems change, “you spend more money on marketing a movie than on making a movie.”  Effective communications is a key component to systems change.

Context Matters:  Relevant stakeholders must own the practice, and scaling requires adaptation to local contexts

Top down approaches rarely work. You need local advocates to take an idea to scale. Jeannie Oakes at theFord Foundation re-told a story about how different school systems have embraced the idea of increasing the time students are being educated during the year. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been an advocate of this idea, but it hasn’t been received well by teachers in Chicago. In Rochester, the teachers union has been involved early in discussions and the concept has spread.  Professor Dees asked Jeannie to also consider the question of how to scale an idea across diverse locales and still maintain its effectiveness. Jeannie said it’s about being clear about non-negotiables, but that there are many different and effective ways to expand the school day.

Align public funding streams and leverage local funders

In the context of more limited public resources, Abel Ortiz from Annie E. Casey Foundation emphasized that it is essential to align federal resources to state and local resources and promising solutions. Casey Foundation has created a finance team that works to figure out these diverse and complex funding streams, and also works with multiple public agencies to align funding streams so that  promising solutions can be supported effectively.

All the panelists, many from larger foundations, emphasized the importance of including smaller local funders in initiatives. Jeannie Oakes made the point that, “When you are a big funder you don’t really know context; you need local funders who know the place well.”

Collective Impact requires engaging all the right players

All of the panelists have been involved in collective impact approaches – a practice framed and studied by John Kania, Managing Director at FSG. Greg Dees asked the panel what mix of collaborators is needed to achieve lasting impact. According to John, it’s everyone who touches the issue. John described an initiative he was involved with that focused on Juvenile Justice and included 50 different organizations. The group collectively shaped a common agenda over 18 months. It was hard work but it is now state law. John believes that you get a different level of honesty when you have all the players at the table; he remarked, “If business is there, funders will behave.”

Collective impact is a systems approach to scaling large scale problems. It’s about aligning organizations and coordinating the players. However, many collaborations have not worked.  So what are the key conditions for success? John explained:

  • development of a common agenda
  • shared measurement
  • working in a mutually reinforcing way
  • frequent communications among participating groups
  • an organization (or team) that is the backbone of the collaborative and can facilitate the collective process (and the funding to support such a process is also key!)


Thanks to the panel, some of the key questions for the day were established.

Michele Kahane is Professor of Professional Practice at The New School for Public Engagement, Milano School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy