People with fewer resources pay more for credit, if they can access it at all. We founded Community Credit Lab (CCL) in Seattle, Washington, to help underserved communities access affordable credit, and on October 4, we gave out our first 0 percent interest loans, supporting foreign-educated nurses in becoming registered nurses in the US. We made the choice to offer small dollar, consumer loan products at 0 percent interest after extensive interviews with King County stakeholders: nonprofits, community organizations, credit unions, foundations, investors, people within the public sector, and corporations. Given our mission and focus, 0 percent interest resonated with the organizations whose opinions we prioritize most.

But when we interact with prospective donors about our model, we’re accustomed to hearing the following questions: What is your strategy for systems change? For sustainability? For scaling?

These are standard, uncontroversial questions. We’ve asked them ourselves from the other side of the table, first in business school, then as investors and as philanthropic funders. And we have answers. We explain that we’re working to change a system that prices financial risk (even if that risk is only perceived) and which therefore places an undue interest burden on underserved communities by communicating our data and learnings transparently, especially where more relevant in the public sector. When it comes to sustainability, our zero-interest model means revenue generation must be a matter of grants and donations, at least in the short term, though we are thinking about opportunities for cross subsidization across future lending products (and we recently developed a model that incorporates a management fee while still paying investors 1 percent, net of fees, and lending at 0 percent). And as for scale, we don’t yet know whether our approach will be to go deep within King County or wide across many counties and states—nor whether to scale directly or in partnership—but we hesitate to spread ourselves too thin in early stages.

However, while we always learn from discussions with donors, investors, and prospective partners, designing for people means prioritizing our mission. As we search for the balance between designing for underserved communities in the short term and planning strategically for scale, sustainability, and systems change in the long term, we’ve noticed that, for nonprofits, expectations of scale, systems change, and sustainability can often be at odds with each other (and with human-centered design).

Scale requires a competitive approach to growth, for example, while systems change requires collaboration, transparency, sharing, and collective adaptation. And while nonprofits are often advised to adhere to “business” standards of sustainability, businesses often prioritize long-term scale over short-term sustainability. Finally, in our current phase, sustainable revenue generation strategies (beyond donations and grants) would only be possible by extracting from the communities we seek to serve, something we strive to avoid.

The answer is not a zero-sum choice, but rather a flexible approach that combines techniques, learning from the places where these principles come into conflict, and discovering emergent solutions to our stakeholders’ problems. We will go through each, in turn, describing the principles we’ve developed for managing the tensions between them and how we see them applying to our sector from our current point of view.

Read the full article about sustainability, scale, and systems change by Ryan Glasgo and Sandhya Nakhasi at Stanford Social Innovation Review.