Photo left: Members of our Transformative Impact Collaborative at our Fall 2015 impact lab.
Two years ago Bridgespan set out to address a crucial challenge: how to close the gap between programs that help hundreds or even thousands of people and the vast majority who remain in need. Over the past decade social innovators have demonstrated how to build and replicate effective programs, achieving a level of success far beyond what almost any of us might have imagined. But, as Abe Grindle and I chronicled in "Transformative Scale: The Future of Growing What Works," even the most celebrated social programs struggle to crack the code of creating population-level change.
Last March this challenge inspired us to team with Harvard Business School to launch the Transformative Impact Collaborative—a group of 26 nonprofits and funders that are building transformative scale strategies. Bridgespan also continues to consult with several other organizations in this vein. Out of this work, a number of important themes and issues have emerged:
The leadership challenge of 2x versus 100x impact: While a nonprofit can double its impact ("2x") by replicating a successful program, getting to 100x requires radical shifts in strategy—and in organization. (For some cases in point, see Dan Cardinali's recent article on Communities In Schools' experience, and Billy Shore and Darell Hammond's article about the evolution of their organizations, Share Our Strength and Kaboom!) Managing through these shifts demands much of leadership teams. A frequent concern: how to maintain focus and momentum in the core program while aggressively exploring adjacent pathways, which might challenge the core or even replace it.
The shift from organization-based to field-based strategies: In almost every case, a single organization can't solve a major social problem by itself. This truism is prompting leading direct service organizations to ask: what is my role in a field-based strategy? They often have the strongest track record and most credibility in their field. But those very attributes call into question whether they can be impartial arbiters of a field-based strategy. Funders, too, are asking important questions about the roles they can play in catalyzing or supporting strategies to create or shift fields. A growing number of articles is exploring this issue (see Rockefeller on public health, Hewlett on open educational resources, Atlantic on school discipline reform, Haas on marriage equality).
Weak demand for effective programs: A vexing limitation in a large number of transformative scale strategies is weak demand for a proven solution. The implicit "build it, and they will come" approach almost never works—a lesson learned long ago in the private sector. When the FDA approves a new drug, for example, pharmaceutical companies plough billions of dollars into sales and marketing to get it into the hands of doctors and patients. Is there any reason to think evidence-based social programs should be different?
Heightened focus on a model's cost: Many program models initially take shape with a focus on impact. The chief concern is "will it work"? If indeed it does, then nonprofit leaders confront a second question: is it viable at scale? We've seen that one of the biggest barriers here is cost. Effective programs often are simply too expensive for massive expansion, a realization that forces leaders to reexamine program models to wring out costs while preserving a high degree of impact. This is an area where there is much to learn from organizations in the Global South, where leaders must consider cost and scale from the outset (see Transformative Scale: Global Lessons in What Works).
The need for new thinking on funding models: While a core element of achieving transformative scale centers on reducing unit cost, a massive increase in scale invariably means that much more capital is needed (e.g., reducing the unit cost to 10 percent of the original and reaching 100x the population requires a 10x increase in capital). Additionally, field-based approaches tend to require a much greater level of upfront capital to get to "proof of concept" than traditional direct service models. Government and markets remain the go-to funding sources at scale, but fresh funding questions are emerging here, too, such as: what is the role of philanthropy in catalyzing markets (see "Priming the Pump"); how to motivate government to scale what works (see "Scaling What Works: Implications for Philanthropists, Policymakers, and Nonprofit Leaders"); and what is the viability of partial loss/modest gain social enterprises (see "Philanthropy's New Frontier—Impact Investing").
Implementation can make or break impact: Knowing what works is necessary—but not sufficient. Achieving impact at scale hinges on implementation. Always a challenge, it's even more so in a transformative scale context as strategies veer away from hands-on, direct work and towards influence and enabling. Carina Wong's recent article describing "disciplined design" is informative along these lines, pointing to the value of closely monitoring a model's application in a variety of settings and adjusting accordingly. We also see the emergence of new types of organizational "platforms" that go beyond the role of "what works" clearinghouses (see recent report on these entities) to bridge theory, research, and practice in ways that accelerate learning (see Ariadne Labs — Year Two Story for an example of this type of platform). We still have much to learn about the factors that drive strong implementation at scale in the social sector.
These themes—plus many more that hold pieces of the transformative scale puzzle—warrant much further exploration. In that spirit, pioneering leaders, experts, and colleagues will join me in this blog space in the weeks and months ahead to speed learning and accelerate progress towards transformative scale. I invite you to join with us on this journey.