At the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference, one of the most interesting sessions was a discussion of scale between the successful nonprofits Nurse-Family Partnerships and Homeboy Industries and funders the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the California Endowment. The session was titled Promises and Pitfalls of Going to Scale and examined the different ways that Nurse-Family Partnership and Homeboy Industries had been successful.
Nurse-Family Partnership is the classic case study of a nonprofit going to scale (seriously, you can read the Bridgespan case study of NFP here). Beginning in 1996, NFP took their evidence based program and began to replicate it around the country. They now offer services in 28 states and have over 16,000 families enrolled in their program.
Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention program in the country offering many services around their core mission to place at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth in productive jobs. But while they are the largest program in the country, they offer services exclusively in Los Angeles. During the session, founder and executive director Father Greg Boyle explained that they have intentionally resisted the many offers to replicate their program in other cities. However they do act as a model for other programs and help other programs get started. Since “scale” is the constant buzzword of social entrepreneurship in particular and philanthropy in general, it is interesting to hear the counter argument.
One of the reasons scale is pursued in the for-profit space is that many fixed costs diminish as an organization grows. Therefore, the bigger an organization gets, the more profitable it can be. But one of the implications of the fact that philanthropic knowledge is valued differently than for-profit knowledge, is that Father Boyle is “winning” when he helps other groups copy his program. The social impact that Homeboy Industries achieves accrues to the public in the same way the impact that other programs create does. This means that unlike in the for-profit space, where Father Boyle would have to own the other programs to benefit from their success, in the social sector we all win when anyone wins.
So does scale make sense?
In many cases I think it does. But given the assumption that many people make that scale is the obvious goal, I think it is important that we examine when going to scale makes sense and when helping other people steal your ideas is a better strategy.
Luckily this is an idea that is gaining traction. Nathaniel Whittemore wrote yesterday about Scale vs. Diffusion in a report from his Global Engagement Summit yesterday (Did I steal his idea or have I been thinking about this post since the CEP conference? Does it matter?). And the March edition of Alliance Magazine had an article comparing “replication” vs. “propagation”. Alliance Magazine has made access to the article free for Tactical Philanthropy Readers. Check it out here.