April 14, 2017

From Scaling Impact to Impact at Scale

As nonprofits, NGOs, and funders increasingly seek innovative ways to address the total need around critical issues, new challenges, questions, and opportunities arise.

(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.

Working to meet the whole need

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.

Leaders share lessons learned

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:

  • Catalyzing public policy change: Patrick Guerriero, founder and CEO of Civitas and veteran of the Marriage Equality movement, focuses on what it takes to influence the “system” of public policies, laws, and social norms that help perpetuate many of the injustices we seek to address.
  • Frugal innovation: Jaideep Prabhu, a professor at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, shares how Indian NGOs’ embrace of “jugaad innovation,” which emphasizes doing more with less, can provide a model for others around the world.
  • What Taco Bell can teach nonprofits about excellence at scale: Harvard Business School Professor Len Schlesinger considers what the for-profit sector can teach nonprofits about empowering staff with a few supports to achieve quality at scale.
  • Measuring to innovate: William Corrin and John Martinez of MDRC describe how insightful evaluation should be a way to engage in ongoing learning and continuous feedback.
  • Technology’s untapped potential: Margaret Laws, CEO of Hope Lab, discusses the potential for technology to help us exponentially scale impact, cut costs, and/or improve effectiveness; the reality of the sector’s dearth of technology talent and capabilities; and what we might do about it.
  • “Blitzscaling” and the management of rapid change: Chris Yeh, founder and CEO of Wasabi Ventures, and coauthor with Reid Hoffman of Blitzscaling, reflects on when and how to “go big quickly,” and how to manage the progression from “family” to “tribe” to “village” to “city” to “nation.”
  • Scaling impact with design thinking and rapid prototyping: Denis Weil, dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s School of Design, and former global EVP for innovation at McDonald’s, shares a set of simple tools and practices that NGOs can use to much more effectively develop, test, and deploy breakthrough innovations
  • Changing widespread social norms via media campaigns: Jay Winsten, associate dean at the Harvard School of Public Health and the director of the School's Frank Stanton Center for Health Communication, describes how he and his team used a comprehensive media strategy to scale the “designated driver” concept in the United States, significantly reducing drunk driving fatalities.

We hope this series advances the sector’s thinking about how to contribute ever more powerfully to impact at scale.

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