Nine Strategies to Scale Impact

We recently engaged with Virtual Enterprises International (VEI) to help them scale their impact across the nation. VEI is an incredibly effective live business simulation that integrates with the school day and allows students to become young professionals in a transformed classroom. After 18 years of program design and delivery, VEI has proven its model and expanded to 350 schools nationwide, reaching 10,000 students. But think about it: there are 25,000 public and 12,000 private secondary schools in America. That’s a total of 18 million secondary students. The chasm between the number of students currently served and a population-level scale is vast.

This challenge is classic in the social sector. Highly effective models tend to be resource and human-capacity intensive. Teach for America, a remarkable and well run nonprofit with a $212 million annual budget, still only reaches 750,000 students per year. Many social sector organizations must truly pivot to scale and achieve maximum positive impact.

Building on the great work of many of our colleagues, including Jeff Bradach, we believe these are the nine of the most powerful strategies to scale impact: 

  1. Scale the program (Teach for America, City Year, FoodCorps)

This strategy is about doing what you’ve been doing on a grander scale, often through opening new sites. It is difficult to approach population-scale by scaling a program, given the intense resource and human capacity constraints associated with most programs.

  1. Demonstrate the model + tell the story (Eagle Rock, Harlem Children’s Zone)

The Harlem Children’s Zone perfectly exhibits the potential power of this model. Thirty years ago Geoffrey Canada chose a small bounded area of Harlem, NYC to demonstrate his comprehensive model to help parents and their kids through the education system from cradle to career. He then executed that model at a very high level, told the story, and disseminated the idea near and far. Harlem Children’s Zone has since entered the national discussion, and the White House has set aside $10 million in matching funds to replicate the model in 20 areas across the United States.

  1. Spread the idea/open-source (TED, Aspen Institute, Drupal)

If you want something to scale quickly, give it away! TED Talks would have never reached such a large audience had they charged a fee per video. Not everything has to be free – when you give the idea away, your ability to monetize the “premium experience” increases. Think of the high cost of TED conferences, or authors who often make their living not on the book they spent years writing, but on speeches and consulting engagements offered as a result.

  1. Productize the solution (Interise, Virtual Enterprises International)

Productizing the solution means selecting the aspects of your model that are highest-impact, removing non-essential components, digitizing and centralizing what you can, and delivering (or selling) the resulting “bundle” or “product” to your constituents. The result is a social-enterprise model that takes advantage of significant economies of scale and allows organizations to become self-sufficient while ending their reliance on fundraising. This was the strategy VEI selected as its best option going forward.

  1. Distribute through existing platforms (Redbox, Coinstar and Starbucks kiosks in Safeway)

Sometimes the best way to scale is to utilize existing distribution platforms and partner with other organizations. There are no independent Redbox or Coinstar stores, yet you can conveniently find a Redbox in most cities across the country because of their partnership with Safeway.

  1. Merge or combine (Zappos-Amazon)

Merging or combining doesn’t necessary mean you must lose your own organizational identity. Zappos, for example, remains a fairly independently entity with their trademark culture, despite their recent acquisition by Amazon. In the nonprofit sector, it’s easy to view other organizations working on the same issue as competition for limited funding dollars. But if you truly have the same goal, why not combine efforts and take the best of what each has to offer for maximum positive impact?

  1. Build an impact network to align existing efforts (Strive Network, ReAmp Network, New Leadership Network)

Don’t reinvent the wheel, but be the hub that brings the spokes together to align existing efforts and catalyze collaboration around a common issue. Commonly referred to as “collective impact,” this strategy calls for an impact network to connect organizations across sectors to build trust, take action, and work together towards individual and shared goals. We have identified Five Steps to Building an Effective Impact Network. An effective impact network is far greater than the sum of its parts.

  1. Seek Government adoption (YouthBuild)

The government is a hugely rich, powerful force in most countries around the world. For some effective program innovations, seeking government adoption and policy change will be the quickest avenue to serve a near population-scale. Even huge foundations, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with their significant resources, pale in comparison to Government funding. YouthBuild CEO Dorothy Stoneman understood this, made the rounds in Congress, and YouthBuild is now a line item in the federal budget, supported by both political parties.

  1. Change mindsets (Civil rights, Nuclear power, Recycling)

As systems-thinker Donella Meadows wrote, because mindsets guide behaviors, changing them can have a profound impact at vast scales. This is the power of an “idea whose time has come”. In a mere hundred-year period from roughly 1788 to 1888 slavery was outlawed from every industrial society on earth. This can result in sweeping policy change, although such movements usually start face to face. As Tom Peters says “You bring about change one person at a time, face to face – when we discover we have common interests and we’re both pissed off.” There were a bunch of American citizens, black and white, who were pissed off about racial inequality in this country. Long before civil rights legislation passed, many of them met regularly at the Highlander Center in the mountains of Tennessee, in a circle of rocking chairs. To rage, to grieve, to sing, to strategize. Rosa Parks sat in those rocking chairs long before she sparked the conscience of a nation by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery.