May 4, 2016

Big Changes Afoot for Big Nonprofits

Shazeen Virani and Jessica Lanney

A compelling pathway to scale impact is through large networks, but until recently, many networks did not view themselves as platforms for spreading ideas and practices for social change. Some though, such as Habitat for Humanity and 4-H, are altering their course, shifting from serving immediate community needs to solving underlying social problems. And they're doing so in a variety of ways that hold lessons for other networks looking to do the same.

By: Shazeen Virani , Jessica Lanney

One of the most compelling pathways to scale impact is through large, pre-existing networks, the subject of a 2013 article by some Bridgespan colleagues. Until recently, such networks did not view themselves as platforms for spreading ideas and practices for social change, but rather as federations of quite independent local actors. Some networks, though, are searching for ways to blend their broad reach and local knowledge to address social problems at a transformative scale. It is an important and exciting development—one which requires networks to invest in different capabilities and innovators to cede some control over their programs. But it is exactly these kinds of shifts that are needed to achieve transformative scale.
—Jeff Bradach

Big nonprofit networks like the Y-USA and Save the Children have astonishing financial clout and reach. The top 10 such networks have a combined annual revenue of over $34 billion, and each serves a median of 10 million individuals each year. These sprawling organizations have the potential to use their existing infrastructure as platforms for social change. For that reason, we view them as a pathway for achieving impact at a transformative scale—a pathway some already are exploring.

Webinar: Can Big Nonprofits Get Big Results?

On Thursday, May 5th, 2016, leaders from several large national and international networks discussed why their organizations are pivoting to tackle the root causes of the challenges faced by their beneficiaries and what it takes to make such a pivot happen. To learn more and to see a recording of the discussion, click here.

In our study of more than a score of these organizations, we found a handful that have begun altering course, shifting from serving immediate community needs to solving underlying social problems. They're doing so in a variety of ways, including adopting evidence-based programs developed by others, retooling existing programs to focus on social outcomes, and partnering with others to add successful programs.

Take Habitat for Humanity. Founded in 1976, Habitat works today in over 70 nations to provide home construction, rehabilitation, and increased access to shelter. In 2013, the organization embarked on a new strategy to do more than build houses, an approach that would never match need. To address the housing deficit in more systemic ways, Habitat now focuses on advocacy and market development efforts—including advising microfinance institutions on how to offer small housing loans to help families buy land, build, or improve their homes. So Habitat shifted from chipping away incrementally at the housing deficit, one home at a time, to a system change approach with the potential to reach many more in need.

4-H also has shifted to a new strategy. Founded over a century ago to connect new, university-developed agricultural technologies to family farms via student clubs, 4-H today serves nearly six million young people through after-school programs, camps, and school enrichment programs. Alarmed by a 2007 report on the national crisis in teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), 4-H leaders conceived a strategy to play a role in after-school STEM education. It wasn't long before the organization launched 4-H Science, a program which in its first five years reached 1.3 million kids—roughly half of whom were new to 4-H. Initial evaluations show the program advances the targeted STEM outcomes, such as increased pursuit of postsecondary STEM education.

Habitat and 4-H demonstrate the huge potential to deliver innovative programs using the existing infrastructure of a national or global nonprofit network. Neil Nicoll, president emeritus of the Y-USA, champions this notion. "They are our best hope for overcoming social challenges," says Nicoll. "Duplicating their capacity may not be possible. We have to transform them."

So what will it take for other big networks to use their size and reach to solve social problems? The experience of the pioneering networks in our study suggests they'll have to do the following:

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.

Visit the Resource Center

Reconnect with historic roots. Before they moved forward, the networks first took a step back. They dug into their organization's history in search of timeless elements of their missions while understanding how current context differed from the past. In short, they reaffirmed their roots while pursuing renewed relevance. 4-H, for example, found its historic core of experience in scientific concepts and its unique collaboration with university professionals and community volunteers held the key to twenty-first century purpose.

Collect data to steer decision making. Data made the case for Habitat's shift to a more systemic approach to providing housing for the poor. By digging into housing deficit figures, Habitat realized that their dominant approach to impact—building houses with volunteer labor—was not sufficient to fulfill the organization's mission of eliminating the housing deficit in the countries where it works.

Educate funders on the need for change. A sound and clearly communicated strategy for scaling impact helped motivate long-standing funders to dig deeper and attracted new funders. For example, corporations that stood to benefit down the line from expanded talent pools of STEM-savvy young people stepped up to help 4-H. "We quadrupled our private-sector support in the middle of the recession," says Jennifer Sirangelo, president and CEO of National 4-H Council.

By their very nature, big networks have big potential to use their enormous size and long tradition of service to achieve impact at a transformative scale. But getting there won't be easy. Any big nonprofit that chooses to go this route has to figure out how to ensure that providers in a widely dispersed network can reliably deliver consistent results. Social entrepreneurs who wish to extend their impact via networks also will have to relinquish some control to achieve the scale they seek. But the bold innovations underway at Habitat, 4-H, and several more in our study show the way for others to follow.

Shazeen Virani is a Bridgespan Group manager in San Francisco, and Jessica Lanney is a consultant in Boston.

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Archived Comments

5/20/2016 6:17:59 AM

The Big injuring for their pathway concept and just i most difference opportunity.

Diana Aviv
5/4/2016 12:17:43 PM

Shazeen and Jessica,

You are right in noting that large organizations had tremendous power to scale. We have been doing it for years and years. Only difference is that we don't write about it and so you may not be aware of our scope, capacity and strong track record. it is an organization that also measure outcomes! We are a network of two hundred food banks and large national organization. Together we are $7.75 billion though the national organization alone is $2.2 billion. While I have only been here 7 months I can enumerate the ways in which this organization has successfully scaled and also driven change. if you decide to update you work we welcome you to take a look-see.

Please give my warmest regards to Jeff Bradach

Diana Aviv

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