Photo: Year Up

Transformative Scale: The Future of Growing What Works

02/20/2014 | 22 min |
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A number of social sector leaders, philanthropists, and policymakers are experimenting with ways to deliver impact at a truly “transformative scale.” This article highlights nine pathways being explored by these pioneers in their efforts to solve social problems in the United States and abroad.

In just 12 years, Gerald Chertavian has nurtured Year Up from start-up to star status among nonprofits that offer job training and educational support to disadvantaged urban young adults. A remarkable 84 percent of Year Up's graduates land full-time jobs or enroll in college within four months of completing their year-long skills training and internship program. Such success has propelled the program's annual enrollment from 22 students in one city in 2001 to more than 2,000 students in 12 cities today.

Year Up's growth can be captured by a simple catchphrase: "scaling what works." It is a phrase that has energized social entrepreneurs and philanthropists alike, and a rallying cry to direct more funding to interventions that actually get results. Leaders such as the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation,1 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations,2 Results for America, the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, and many others have worked tirelessly to advance this effort. Even the federal government embraced the idea. Soon after taking office in 2009, President Obama launched initiatives to identify and support social programs with proven benefits. This is critical work, and it must continue. (See the sidebar Continue to Expand Proven Programs.)

But success has its limits. Chertavian now confronts a dilemma shared by many other successful social entrepreneurs.3 He has a proven program and steady site-by-site growth. Yet, Year Up reaches only a tiny fraction of the 6.7 million low-income young adults in the United States who are out of work and out of school. "Given the magnitude of the problem, we can't be satisfied with a plan that just doubles the size of Year Up," says Chertavian. "We need a new path to close the gap between what we've achieved to date and what we still need to accomplish."

That new path requires innovative ways of thinking about scale. It is no longer sufficient simply to scale what works in an incremental manner. Three years ago, a Stanford Social Innovation Review article proposed the notion of scaling impact rather than organizations, asking, "How can we achieve 100x the results with just 2x the organization?"4 More recently, Chertavian and other social sector pioneers have started to tackle an even more fundamental question: How can we grow our impact to actually solve problems we care about? In short, how can we achieve truly transformative scale?

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