Lessons in Going to Scale: National Writing Project

Lessons in Going to Scale is a newly-launched blog series featuring on-the-ground stories from nonprofit organizations at different points in their scaling trajectory. Hear from S&I 100 CEOs and nonprofit leaders in health, education, youth, and poverty alleviation about the strategies and challenges of developing a scaling model.

The National Writing Project’s Executive Director and Director of National Programs explain the important distinction between “scale” and “spread” and what it meant for their growth.

For many nonprofits, working toward scale is an all-consuming focus demanding work and strong execution. Certainly that has been true for us at the National Writing Project. As we look forward to our 40th anniversary year in 2014, we can see the path that led to our current scale and remember some valuable lessons we learned along the way.

NWP began in 1974 as a single local Writing Project site in the San Francisco Bay Area with the goal of engaging teachers K through university-level in professional development and school reform. Since that time, NWP has grown to nearly 200 local sites located within 50 miles of 75 percent of the nation’s teachers. Each of these sites also has its own dynamics of scale, and now provides professional learning and support opportunities for educators across all curriculum areas as well as out-of-school settings. This kind of growth fits many standard definitions of scale: opening new local sites, serving new populations in existing locations, developing expanded programming and partnerships, growing the budget, and investing in evaluation.

Over our first four decades, we learned important lessons. We learned that growth doesn’t happen along a predictable trajectory, but often takes place in discontinuous jumps that work something like the famous quantum leap: first you’re at one steady state, then suddenly you’re at another, seemingly without having covered ground in between. We learned that getting to scale requires activity on many fronts, from internal organizational development to external partnership activity and the development of new competencies. We also learned that smart growth demands a clear-eyed assessment of productive adaptation and quality on the ground, and the willingness to commit to the support necessary to achieve it. But one additional and surprising lesson we learned is how deeply scale is related to spread.

What is spread?

At first glance, spread and scale are similar, but the two terms come from very different domains. While scale often refers to replication and expansion of a specific model with an emphasis on “pushing out,” spread is more often used to describe the circulation of ideas, values, practices, and habits that people “pull in” to their lives.

Nonprofits working for social impact understand that they are about shifting behaviors and changing mindsets through programmatic and communications efforts. But spread is about something a little harder to quantify. Spread is about something more akin to that magical moment when something suddenly becomes “cool.” Spread points to the way that suddenly everyone seems to be laughing at the same video or using the same catch phrase. In short, thinking about spread is a very different thing from thinking about scale.

Here at NWP, we define spread as an active process where the agency lies with the participant, not with the originator. Spread happens because people want to be more than just consumers of culture. They want to be producers and participants as well. And when they do, in a circuitous way, they become active agents in the process of scale.

How NWP utilized spread to scale

When the NWP was young, we saw that prevailing attitudes about writing, creativity, and knowledge-making were limiting of human potential. Writing was thought to be something that “born writers” did. Making and circulating knowledge, following a line of research and action to something new—which is what writing does across fields as diverse as science and technology, public affairs, health, environment, or community action—was imagined as the province of a small number of people. Educational systems worked hard to create a large number of readers, but thought they could be well-served by a small number of writers.

As an organization with the vision of ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to learn to write in the strongest sense of being an innovator and knowledge-maker, our growth to scale was intimately connected to the spread of a new idea, namely that anyone can and should write. Everyone has a story to tell; every voice contributes to the whole. Ideas about participatory democracy, diversity and equity, and engagement in public life, while not strictly about literacy, are as much the story of our growth and scale as our specific actions as an organization. If anyone can write, and if every voice is important, there is cause to do the worthwhile work of taking the organization to scale. Everyone who acted to spread that idea contributed to our growth to scale.

Today we have a different ecosystem for spread than we did 40 years ago—a new media ecology. People write, create, and circulate routinely on the web. They create and innovate across many areas of their lives, embracing a DIY and maker ethos. This way of saying “anyone can” is intimately tied to the scale of many things from the reinvention of manufacturing to the rise of social entrepreneurship to activities like citizen science and community journalism. The key is to link that active and spreadable culture more generally to building adaptive and efficient infrastructures that deliver social value at scale.

Key to NWP’s success in going to scale nationally was an understanding that in order for NWP to thrive in scores of local communities, we needed to persuade many practitioners to invest cognitively and emotionally in new values and beliefs. These values and beliefs were larger than the focus of our organization; they were the values and beliefs that made our organization relevant.  The idea of spread reminds us that beyond our passionate champions and our dedicated staff and volunteers, there is a broad public whose engagement with the vision behind the organization is an essential component of going to scale.

To learn more about National Writing Project and their scaling plans, visit their S&I 100 profile.

— Sharon J. Washington, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of NWP, and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Ph.D., is Director of National Programs and Site Development.