January 11, 2016

The Next Chapter for Transformative Scale

Social innovators have long demonstrated how to build and replicate effective programs, yet even the most effective programs still struggle to create population-level change. This challenge inspired us to team up with Harvard Business School to launch the Transformative Impact Collaborative—a group of 26 nonprofits and funders that are building transformative scale strategies. Out of this collaboration have emerged a number of important themes and issues. Bradach's latest transformative scale blog is the first in a series that will explore these themes over the coming year.

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.

How do we achieve impact at a scale that meets today's enormous needs? Explore Bridgespan research, insights from leaders, and more on the Transformative Scale Resource Center.

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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.

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Archived Comments

Jeff Bradach
1/20/2016 3:05:08 PM

Dear Purnima - Great additions to the questions people are grappling with as they aim for dramatic increases in the scale of their impact. A quick comment on each of your points:

- Different scale strategies often require very different approaches to governance. For example, engaging peers in a field to share/adopt best practices requires different management practices than if the local entities are all part of the same, hierarchical structure. We hear a variety of catch phrases for this approach -- "lead from behind," is a common one right now -- but all of them reinforce your observation about how governance/management structures, as well as leadership styles (see Kania & Senge in SSIR Winter 2015 for a flavor of the difference), vary depending on how one is trying to achieve impact at scale.

- Your second point certainly reflects a commonly held assumption, but one I think we need to reconsider: is it necessarily true that quality decreases with scale? Keep in mind that scale of impact is not necessarily the same as scale of a single organization. A field of high performing charter schools or of home visitation programs might reflect impact at scale, even if no single organization is massive. In that case, with highly motivated leaders in the individual organizations -- lets say, all sharing a common measurement system that feeds learning and improvement -- is it necessarily true that average quality of the "whole" goes down with the addition of players ... or might it go up?

Even in the case of an integrated organization, a certain level of scale is needed to support the kind of investments that might be integral to scaling with quality (R&D, training, QA processes). But to your point, the quality problems might ensue after that stage. But I wonder if the issue might have more to do with how the social sector funds scaled organizations -- often starving the investments that actually enable quality at scale -- than something inherent in the scale process.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Purnima Chawla
1/14/2016 8:29:57 PM

Hi Jeff, Thanks for communicating some of the challenges of scaling so clearly and vividly. I'd add two things that we've learned through our work: (1) Scaling up a program can raise issues about ownership and control, as it can involve re-locating a program or decentralizing decision-making. This is often a challenge, particularly for the founding team. (2) In related vein, scaling up a program also leads to dilution of program quality. It is very difficult to deliver the same quality and faithful implementation at scale. This shouldn't be a deal-breaker. Even if a program shows a 20% drop in efficacy when you're reaching 100 times more people, you're still doing more good than you were before. But for some people, the perfect can be the enemy of the good.


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