Scaling Back on Scaling: Assessing whether and how to grow for social profit

Recently, the Heckscher Foundation approached the founder of one of the most successful college readiness programs in Los Angeles. His record with underserved youth had been phenomenal: 95 percent of youth served have either graduated from college or are on their way to graduation. We asked how we could convince him to expand his program to New York City. His answer? "Find another me in New York and I will train him." The response may seem glib, but it speaks to a fundamental dilemma that programs must face when considering whether and how to scale their success.

Standout programs of any size tend to be led by dynamic people with endless energy and keen instincts (among our grantees, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Debbie Bial of Posse Foundation, Dave Levin of the Kipp Foundation, and Jon Schnur of America Achieves come to mind). The solution may seem simple – find and nurture more of these dynamic people. But that overlooks the fact that even if you can, they only have two arms and one head, so there’s a limit to the economies of scale that you can achieve simply by identifying more leaders to serve more people with the same approach.

From my perspective, the key to considering an organization or program’s potential to scale lies in asking the right questions. Much of the emphasis on scale comes (I would hazard) from the for-profit world, in which rapid growth – more customers and revenue – equals success. Yet in a corporate environment, successful scaling begins with an analysis of whether the product will sell in another market, how much capital it will take to sell it, and who will lead the entry into the new market. These are questions we can and should be asking in the nonprofit or social profit world as well.

Whether you’re a funder considering the potential of a grantseeker to scale a nonprofit, or you represent a nonprofit seeking funding to scale your work, here are some questions I recommend asking:

  1. Why does the organization think this program or idea will actually work on a bigger scale? (Studies have shown that workforce development programs serving fewer than 100 people are more effective than larger ones, for example.) If the proposal is to expand to another city, has the organization so saturated its own market that it has no one else to serve where it is?
  2. What capital is needed to sustain this expansion for not one or two, but five to ten years? Has funding been secured from other sources? (No fuzzy math here, just the facts.)
  3. Who are the board members explicitly committed to overseeing the expansion and what time commitments are they signed on for? Does the organization need a new regional board if it is going to a new city? Have these people been identified and have they committed to participating?
  4. Who on the organization's staff is going to bring the same level of energy and ingenuity to this expansion? If it’s current staff, do they have the time? If (as is too often the case) the organization plans to hire someone new, who is it? (Too often the answer is "I can do it all," or, "we will add staff," without thought to how difficult it is to clone, supervise, and integrate the new staff.)

If these questions have not been answered, our response to grant seekers asking for funds to scale is “come back to us when you think you have those answers.”

It’s time for leaders in the sector—foundations and service providers alike—to ask and answer those same questions, and more; in short, to apply more critical thinking and discipline to the “scaling” discussion than we have in the past. When we do, we stand to exponentially increase the likelihood of success for those scaling projects that we do take on.

About the author(s)

Chairman and CEO
Heckscher Foundation for Children