(This article originally appeared on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website, April 14, 2017.)
Three years ago, we described a sobering reality: Despite all the progress the social sector had made over the last few decades in figuring out “what works” to improve the lives of disadvantaged populations, many of the best organizations and fields were still addressing only a small fraction of the need. In pursuit of what works, most had focused too little attention on what works at scale.
The article and an accompanying series featured a set of pioneering leaders in the United States and Global South who had come to recognize this enormous “impact gap” and were experimenting with a variety of strategies to address it. Some focused on redesigning a particular direct service model to make it much more scalable, while others pursued efforts to change the wider system, context, or “equilibrium” that helped perpetuate the problem. Yet, at the time, such efforts were relatively isolated, and the funding to pursue them was limited at best.
Today, we see much progress. Indeed, it feels as if the social sector is in the midst of a fundamental shift. Many leaders have completely recast their aspirations. “Systems change” and “impact at scale” are no longer simply buzzwords. They are real targets that nonprofit and NGO leaders, boards, and staffs are working toward. Wide-reaching “indirect” impact strategies like licensing and technical assistance are springing up alongside or even supplanting leading organizations’ direct-service work. More field-building intermediaries are emerging, and action-oriented collaboratives are on the rise. “Systems leadership” and “network entrepreneurship” are hot topics of conversation.
Of course, this is in part propelled because philanthropists too are stepping up to the plate; Blue Meridian Partners and the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change initiative are but the vanguard of a rapidly growing number of $10 million to $100 million-plus “big bets” by institutions and individuals that aim to support significant leaps forward in addressing the full scale of the need. Also, a growing number of the world’s largest funders are taking steps to support the full cost of the work nonprofits and NGOs are doing.
These trends are unlocking vast new potential for impact at scale, as well as important new questions and challenges. These came to the fore during the recent convening of 75 top nonprofit, NGO, and foundation leaders from the United States, Africa, and India that The Bridgespan Group hosted in partnership with the Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative. All the attendees shared a passion for pursuing “impact at scale,” and each one had made significant progress developing and implementing strategies to achieve it. Yet, none had all the answers. There was much eagerness to learn from one another, as well as from a diverse set of innovators who offered short “lightning talks” designed to spark new ideas and approaches to some of the most common challenges. The attendees found these talks quite helpful, so in the spirit of benefiting the broader sector, each speaker will contribute to a thought-provoking article series over the next several weeks. (You can also listen to many of the original talks on Bridgespan.org.) The upcoming blogs will discuss:
We hope this series advances the sector’s thinking about how to contribute ever more powerfully to impact at scale.
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