Scaling Impact: Beyond Replication

In the philanthropic sector, scale is often used synonymously with replication. This is most common when talking about scaling organizations – and suggests that funders should invest in identifying effective nonprofit models and replicating those models in new places or with new populations in order to increase their impact on a social issue. This is certainly an important and valid approach to scaling impact, but it’s not (as Michele Kahane highlighted in an earlier post) the only way. At this year’s Social Impact Exchange Conference, funders, nonprofits, and those that connect the two (intermediaries) discussed the various alternative strategies to scaling impact. These alternatives include scaling impact through policy and advocacy, a strategy at the core of the work of the National Council of La Raza, scaling impact through collective impact, an approach to social impact employed in communities nationwide, as well as many other systems change and social change efforts.

The difference between scaling organizations and scaling impact lies in the belief that scaling impact does not necessarily rely on reaching a new population. In fact, scaling impact may mean going deeper with a population that an organization or initiative is already engaging.

What does it look like to go deeper? It may mean that an organization shifts its approach to addressing a social problem from a narrow focus that meets a specific need (e.g., delivering substance abuse treatment services to urban youth) to a broader, wrap-around approach that helps these same youth cope with issues related to poverty, mental health, and education that also affect substance use behaviors. Eric Rodriguez, Vice President of the Office of Research Advocacy, and Legislation at National Council of La Raza, talked about their organization’s desire to go deeper by expanding its “advocacy work into states and regions of the country where the need for civic empowerment and the potential for success is great.” The organization has primarily focused on policy advocacy at the federal level for many years. This growth plan suggests a deepening of their commitment, a scaling strategy that is vastly different from replication or even traditional organizational expansion into a larger catchment area.

Effective collaboration will be critical for these strategies for scaling impact to succeed. As Lance Fors, Chairman of Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund, highlighted during a panel on funder collaboratives, “This requires a shift from thinking about the foundation as being at the center of social change efforts, to placing the problem at the center.”

This mental shift is not easy. In our work at FSG, we have often seen our foundation clients struggle to identify and define the problem that they passionately care about and seek to address in an intentional, game-changing way. Nonetheless, this conference is evidence that the field of philanthropy has come a long way. Yet as Vanessa Kirsch, founder of New Profit Inc., reiterated last week, “There’s still a long way to go.”

Katelyn Mack is a consultant at FSG.