We love to talk about scaling solutions in the social sector. It feels good to imagine a day when every person who needs support can get it. The reality is, though, that scale is elusive for most of us. Yes, we successfully develop and implement effective solutions to pressing problems, but we can’t do it for everyone everywhere because it isn’t feasible, it’s too expensive, or both. And that is incredibly frustrating.

At my organization, Playworks, we define scale with the phrase “every kid,” and by this we mean—when every kid has access to safe and healthy play every day at school, Playworks’ approach will have reached scale. There are 32 million elementary school-age children in the United States. We’ve been growing for more than 25 years and currently count approximately 700,000 children in 1,400 schools in our circle of direct influence. That’s 2% of the kids, making the idea of scale pretty daunting. Clearly, we won’t get there by only doing what we’ve been doing.

Nine Recommendations for Starting on the Path to Scale
  1. Get comfortable with sharing the “secret sauce.”
  2. Clarify internally the elements that are essential to achieving the desired outcomes, as opposed to those that are “good to have.”
  3. Start small with partners who have their own mission-driven reason to try it on and learn.
  4. Create value for all the actors.
  5. Invest in building trust.
  6. Define success for each partner for the long term.
  7. Convert potential competition to increased impact with a funding model that supports all partners.
  8. Embrace and measure implementation struggles to refine the model.
  9. Build what works at scale. 

The Role of Philanthropy

Stepping onto the path to scale is a risk. It requires resources, vision, and the courage to try and fail. Funders can support organizations that are ready, both with financial support and with technical assistance (as Einhorn Collaborative did for Playworks). Philanthropy can also connect nonprofit leaders with each other and join in the exploration of what “unleashing” could look like for their grantees. We see examples of funders who are willing to support this kind of risk-taking, before a scaling strategy has been proven. We need philanthropy to demonstrate belief in the potential for unleashing approaches to produce dramatically more impact. That will enable and encourage organizations to go beyond themselves to truly collaborate with others. MacKenzie Scott’s unrestricted approach to philanthropy is one way to get there, and for her support of Playworks we are grateful. Philanthropic partnerships are critical for any of us to get on the path.

Read the full article about nonprofit scale by Elizabeth Cushing at Stanford Social Innovation Review.