December 20, 2016

Recommended Reads for Transformative Scale: December 2016

In this month's Recommended Reads, Jeff Bradach highlights articles on selling social change, shifting resources to evidence-based policymaking using data, crowd sourcing solutions to poverty, and other insights related to reaching impact at scale. 

Here are six articles I came across over the past month that provide thought-provoking takes on how to achieve impact at a transformative scale:

1. Selling Social Change: My Bridgespan colleagues Taz Hussein (@tazhussein) and Matt Plummer (@mtplummer) published a great piece in Stanford Social Innovation Review about the need to generate demand for social services among potential beneficiaries when attempting to achieve impact at scale. In far too many situations, the scale-limiting factor is not supply, but demand; put another way, it is not simply the case that “if you build it, they will come.” One of the most fascinating pieces of data in the paper is that pharmaceutical organizations spend billions of dollars more on sales and marketing than on R&D! Even after proving something works, these organizations realize the need for door-to-door selling. (My wife can speak to this; as a psychologist, she has had many free lunches thanks to pharma reps.) Why should the social sector be any different? Of course, investments of this sort often get swept into the “overhead” category, which the social sector systematically under-invests in. (For more on this severe impact-limiting aspect of the sector, see “Pay What It Takes Philanthropy,” and the always insightful and amusing work of Vu Le (@nonprofitwballs) about the damage done to nonprofits by focusing thoughtlessly on administrative ratios.)

2. Facts Over Factions: Elizabeth Mason (@elismason1) and Jim Shelton (@jimsedu) trace the role data can play in shifting resources to what works—and how critical this is to achieving impact at scale. Last year a federal bipartisan commission was launched to explore how to shift more of DC’s work towards evidence-based policymaking. At the same time, organizations like Results for America and Pew-MacArthur’s Results First Initiative have led various efforts at all levels of government to move towards greater use of data and rigorous evidence of impact. While there are a variety of things happening in our politics today that beg the question of whether facts matter, it is important to note that there is a strong current of effort, started in the Bush administration and built on in the Obama administration, that is putting facts in the forefront. Such fact-based strategies, complemented by astute political strategies, are crucial if we truly are to address problems at scale.

3. Innovation at McDonald’s—The Inventor of the Big Mac Passes Away: As someone fascinated with franchising (I wrote a book on the topic many years ago), the passing of Michael James Delligatti caught my eye. Many of the biggest innovations at McDonald’s—the Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, and Egg McMuffin—came from franchisees innovating in their local markets, finding a winning product, and then bringing it to scale through a massive system. (The Filet-O-Fish was invented by a franchisee who was trying to figure out what to serve on Friday nights when devout Catholics wouldn’t eat meat!) Franchising, which essentially blends massive scale and local action in one organization, is one of the most important institutional inventions of the 20th century (built on much earlier models), and so much of the promise of achieving impact at scale today turns on finding new ways to balance scale and local action.

4. Making Big Bets for Social Change: Another set of Bridgespan colleagues published a fascinating article on big bets in late 2015, which highlighted the gap between what philanthropists say they want to fund (i.e., social change) and what they tend to fund in practice (e.g., large educational institutions, medicine, and culture). We recently worked with Forbes to identify the most promising big bets on social change of 2015, and in 10 years we may look back on some of these initiatives as leading examples of how to achieve impact at scale. Next year we will share more research on the intersection between big bets and transformative scale, as the two are linked. (To foreshadow one of the findings: not all big bets are about pursuing impact at scale, but the majority of efforts to solve social problems at scale—which typically span decades—have big bets that have propelled them at critical points.)

5. Crowd Sourcing Solutions to Poverty: This is an interesting blog post by Mauricio Lim Miller about how information technology can be used to help identify and spread solutions to poverty. By collecting ongoing feedback from low-income families, the Family Independence Initiative (@FIInational) gets smarter about which initiatives undertaken by families are actually helpful in getting them out of poverty, evidence FII uses to invest in those initiatives. It’s really important to continually learn from beneficiaries of social programs, and this may especially be true as an organization works to balance local context and system-wide change in an attempt to achieve transformative impact at scale.

6. Silicon Valley’s Latest Innovation—Free Market Philanthropy: Nitasha Tiku (@nitashatiku) writes about how Silicon Valley billionaires are becoming more personally and financially engaged in philanthropy. The narrative offers this trend as a double-edged sword. Tech billionaires are giving large sums of money in ways that target society’s root problems, but they are also more likely to approach giving by falling back on their science and technology backgrounds rather than through a subtle understanding of human-centered phenomena. I tend to be an optimist about the growing philanthropic culture in Silicon Valley, as we see greater recognition of the importance of a deep understanding of constituents on the ground—both to design more effective programs and to engage them in the co-creation of such programs. (It should be noted that traditional philanthropy is by no means immune from the tendency to be a step removed from the realities on the ground; this is not unique to Silicon Valley.) At the same time, one of the critical contributions made by these tech-centric givers is a bias to design solutions that are scale-ready. I hope this mindset permeates more of the social sector, as too many solutions that “work” are not built for scale.

You can find posts about transformative scale, including past installments of Recommended Reads, on our blog. I also Tweet regularly about transformative impact at scale: @JeffBradach.

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