January 29, 2014

Scale That Transforms Society

The 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty has prompted considerable debate over its successes and failures. But one thing on which we can all agree: There’s still plenty of work to do to address a host of social problems in our country and around the world.

The 50th anniversary of President Johnson's War on Poverty has prompted considerable debate over its successes and failures. But one thing on which we can all agree: there's still plenty of work to do to address a host of social problems in our country and around the world.

Over the last two decades, the social sector has made considerable progress in addressing these ills. A wave of social entrepreneurs, new philanthropists, and evaluation specialists have stimulated an increased focus on results and "what works" in a number of domains. Many of these ideas generate real impact that improves lives (and often saves society money as well!). Furthermore, a number of these leaders have successfully scaled up their organizations to reach tens or even hundreds of thousands of individuals in a diverse range of settings. I've spent nearly 20 years studying and working on these scaling strategies, and what has been achieved is beyond what any of us could have imagined when these organizations started.

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.

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But it simply isn't enough. In discussions with leaders from across the sector, I hear a widespread sense that we need fresh thinking and strategies to truly scale solutions to meet the need. These leaders recognize that, even for the most successful among them, their impact makes only a small dent. Scaling a given organization by, say, 20 percent each year is incredible growth, but at that rate it will still require many decades to approach the magnitude of today's problems. A couple of examples illustrate the point.

The Nurse-Family Partnership (NFP), launched in Denver in 1970, currently serves 26,000 low-income, first-time mothers in 43 states by partnering them with a registered nurse who provides ongoing home visits from pregnancy through the child's second birthday. The program has been shown to dramatically improve life outcomes for both the mother and child, and provides $5.70 in benefits to society for every dollar spent. Yet, even after successfully securing in 2010 a $1.5 billion federal funding stream that supports this type of work, NFP reaches less than 2 percent of the total number of mothers that qualify for its services, and all home visitation programs (which are of mixed quality) reach less than one in five of those that might benefit.1

KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of public college-prep charter schools, opened its first two schools in 1995. Today it serves more than 50,000 students in 141 schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C. More than 86 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families and 95 percent are African American or Latino. Nationally, more than 80 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college. Yet, despite this incredible track record of impact and growth, almost 20 years after its founding KIPP serves less than 1 percent of its target population, K-12 children who live in poverty.2

NFP and KIPP are acknowledged stars in the nonprofit world. And their impact extends far beyond their organizational boundaries as they inspire legislation and motivate innovators in government and the nonprofit sector to aim higher. But for all their success, both organizations only scratch the surface of the total need. Their leaders, along with those of many other successful nonprofits, seek to go beyond incremental growth. They are now asking: How can we really solve social problems? How can we take our impact to a truly transformative scale, to a magnitude that is commensurate with the tremendous need that exists?

It's been done before. Look at hospice care, which remained a volunteer-led movement in the United States until the 1980s. The palliative approach began to scale quickly after a large government pilot demonstrated that it improved patients' quality of life and reduced public costs, and thereby gained approval for Medicare reimbursement. By 2010, about one-third of dying Americans used the service.

Other examples of societal benefit programs that have reached massive scale include kindergarten, which gradually scaled nationally after early, local philanthropic programs proved that schooling five-year-olds was both popular and beneficial; microfinance, which scaled dramatically globally in the 2000s, propelled in part by for-profit banks and entrepreneurs investing heavily in a model that had been developed and tested for decades by nonprofit and public entities; and the change in norms and attitudes that was a result of the modern tobacco control movement in the United States. Fifty years after the U.S. Surgeon General first warned about the dangers of smoking, smoking rates have been cut in half and an estimated eight million lives have been saved. These pathways to transformative impact can travel across nonprofit, business, and government sectors, sometimes from grassroots efforts to widespread change, and at times accelerated by targeted government action.

Yet, these examples of success remain the exception rather than the rule. Why is this? What lessons can we learn? What barriers must we overcome? What experiments—formal or informal—are underway, and what new pathways for scaling impact are emerging? Is technology, for example, capable of transforming the social sector as powerfully as it has the for-profit sector? How do we blend the best thinking about what we understand works with the growing, vibrant efforts in local communities to address critical issues—in a way that produces widespread, enduring change?

This blog kicks off a yearlong effort by The Bridgespan Group and thought leaders from all across the social, public, and for-profit sectors to explore these questions and advance our collective understanding of the strategic options for social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, business leaders, and government officials to take "what works" and grow their impact to a truly transformative scale. After all the progress we've made over the past two decades, we are on the cusp of a new wave of social innovation which centers on the issue of scale itself. And it is in this next wave that we may find the pathways to truly addressing at scale some of the most important challenges we face.


1. Note that a number of other programs in the field have less evidence as to the effectiveness of their models.

2. Again, many other charter schools and public schools are working to serve these children, but numerous studies have shown that most still fall woefully short of results such as those achieved by KIPP

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Archived Comments

Jeff Bradach
2/20/2014 8:32:10 AM

Jordan - I will be very interested to hear how your meeting goes. VisionSpring is such an interesting example of this phenomenon -- incredibly powerful "intervention" with already amazing scale ... yet still only touch a small fraction of the need. There are a number of organizations grappling with the shift from enterprise strategies to movement strategies -- or in the parlance of a few pieces we have done on this topic, from scaling organization to scaling impact. An important question that is raised by this shift is who plays what roles -- and can an organization like VisionSpring (or City Year on National Service or NFP in home visitation or Save in maternal health) be both a leading service provider needing to scale and an advocate/movement builder for the broader efforts of others. It could be, thought, that is the ONLY way we will get real movement on addressing problems at scale -- greater integration and/or coordination across these different levers of change. Then the question may be how to obtain the financial resources needed to drive such a strategy. Eager to hear how your work unfolds.

Jordan Kassalow
2/8/2014 4:30:10 PM

Dear Jeff,

Thank you for this insightful and timely article. As a social entrepreneur and Founder of VisionSpring, I am wresting with this exact issue. As an organization, we continue to grow at a respectable rate, however, when measured against the entire problem we are trying to solve, which is lack of affordable eyeglasses in the developing world, we have hardly made a dent. As such, I am starting to explore, how do I move from building an enterprise to building a movement? A movement that places the problem in its entirety at the center of the effort. It is clear, that in order to attack this 700 million person problem, we need new strategies to achieve transformative scale. Next week we are gathering leaders from government, the private sector, and civil society to discuss forming a multi-stakeholder, multi-sector ecosystem to create a real collaboration for transformative impact. Global solution networks are needed to solve large social issues and the time is right get started.

Jeff Bradach
2/3/2014 5:39:50 PM

Thanks for your comment - agree completely! When we find things that work – that have robust evidence – it is crucial that we do all we can to scale them (Results for America is driving important discussions on this topic.) NFP is certainly one of those instances. It is worth noting that even if all of the MIECHV funding went to NFP, it would still serve under 10 percent of the need - so more funding and/or different strategies are needed, too, if we are truly to move the needle.

Steve Goldberg
2/1/2014 8:42:47 AM

Jeff, your argument is spot on, but I want to clarify one point on NFP. While it's technically correct to say that "even after successfully securing in 2010 a $1.5 billion federal funding stream that supports this type of work, NFP reaches less than 2 percent of the total number of mothers that qualify for its services," NFP received only a small share of the MIECHV funding, as you know. The political process diluted that spending by including programs that are far less effective than NFP. NFP works and more than pays for itself, so it makes no sense not to fully fund it.

Jeff Bradach
1/31/2014 1:09:16 PM

Thanks for your comments, Jennifer and Jay. Each of your comments illuminate interesting pathways -- and questions -- about how to achieve transformative scale.

Jennifer, the "collective impact model" may indeed by a pathway for scale change (which might encompass a neighhorhood, city, state, or region) -- and a key underlying element may be shared measurement. It will be interesting to learn from you and others how these kinds of processes operate at the regional level.

Jay, the talent flow question as a lever for scaling impact is a fascinating one. The work Civic Ventures and AARP Experience Corps have done, among others, to mobilize the talents of older adults points to the potential in this avenue of impact.

Beyond older adults, the general question of how scaling of solutions and impact can be accelerated by talent flows may be one of the most important questions we face. K-12 may be instructive: a case might be made that the underlying driver of change in the system has been the early efforts to influence talent flows into the sector (KIPP, Broad Superintendent Project, TFA, Recruiting New Teachers, etc. etc.) This is not a sweeping statement about the existing talent in the system, but an observation about what sparks innovation, challenges existing paradigms, and so forth. If there is even a glimmer of truth in that hypothesis, it poses big questions about the potential for widespread, enduring change in other fields where there is much less investment in talent.

Jay Bloom
1/29/2014 8:29:47 PM

My belief is that the opportunity exists to tap into the millions of aging boomers to move from deficit model of older adults to an asset model. When this movement gathers momentum this will create an army of human capital that can be transformed into social capital for all local communities in a myriad number of ways.

Jennifer Browning
1/29/2014 3:31:12 PM

I am really looking forward to this. We discuss this a lot within one of the Networks that work with us on the Mississippi River. There is an excellent model in the way the Great Lakes has gained massive public support and household name status. The Mississippi River, goes through 10 states, drains 32 states and has significant impact on people's lives - everything from flooding to the Dead Zone, but has yet to be identified by the public as a something culturally and naturally significant.

We have been experimenting with this work of building the public's connection to the River for about six years. We have found a few approaches that seem to be effective. And interestingly enough none of them depend heavily on social media or technology.

We are now planning for the next five years using the collective impact model which has been interesting and I think it will allow us to move closer to meeting our goals.

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