Steal This Idea!

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.


  1. Nathaniel says:

    No theft involved! Just an important conversation diffusing, or being taken to scale? Or..which is it? 😉

    Seriously though, I think the important question this brings up is how is someone like Father Boyle supported? Are there funders who leverage their resources to help open source the model? Are resources made available for his staff to travel to other places on a consultation basis? Are, on the other hand, their funders *only* interested if he brings it to other cities?

    It’s not just how we intellectually value things but how we actually reward behavior that shifts things.

  2. Great question Nathaniel. While Father Boyle may not need to “own” the impact, it sure does seem that many foundations feel that they want to “own” the impact.

    I’ve put in a request to see if we can get Father Boyle’s comments here. But I don’t know him personally.

  3. Nick Temple says:

    Just been delighted to read this and Nat’s post. Finally, the fetishization of scale in this space seems to being genuinely challenged…for too long, there has been an assumption that a) social entrepreneurs (and their non-profits) have to scale to be successful and b) that scale is about turnover / organisational size, rather than (as it should be) about size of impact.

    First up, many social entrepreneurs (like many entrepreneurs) start organisations that are addressing a local need, fit-to purpose to that locality, and have neither the wish nor willing to scale in any sense.

    For those that do, the spectrum of ‘scaling’ (in its broadest sense) includes everything from open-source propagation through licensing / franchising on to centralised command and control. Check out the Young Foundation’s In and Out of Sync report on this.

    And, as ever, it should be about the quality of what’s delivered, measuring the impact of it, operating transparently and accountably, and communicating all of that effectively. Regardless of turnover, number of employees, or number of locations operated in.

    btw, this is not an anti-scaling rant (!): we’re replicating as a franchise at the moment in the UK and overseas!

  4. Tony Wang says:

    Sean, great post as always – but I’m afraid that your blog is now the victim of Tweetback spam and I don’t think there’s a CAPTCHA solution..

    Nathaniel, I think your questions about replication and Father Boyle’s model are extremely relevant and point to an underlying problem with the diffusion of social innovation (particularly nonprofit solutions). If Father Boyle’s not replicating and other funders aren’t copying the model – then the impact of the organization, while it might be great in Los Angeles, is inherently limited. While I agree with Nick there has been some fetishization of the term scale, I think scale has to be consciously considered in the design of extremely successful social innovations and that without it, social innovations are often less effective than they potentially could be.

    I’ve posted a much lengthier response on my blog and would love to have any thoughts/reactions:

  5. Thanks Nick,
    It is interesting how if you don’t worship a certain ideal, people think you are against it. Thanks for making the point that you’re all for scale when appropriate!

    Tony, I just checked out your post. I guess the point is that we want to scale the impact, not always the organization. Planning for how to scale impact is certainly an important early planning step to take.

  6. Tony Wang says:

    Agreed – organizations are simply a means to the end and not the end itself (but sometimes it’s an important means!). So I guess if we’re going to fetishize something, it should be impact and not organizations.

  7. Nick Temple says:

    What’s this? Agreement breaking out in the blog comments? Couldn’t agree more with all of the above. Here’s a few more links that might be of interest:

  8. Emily Gerth says:

    For me, the meaty philanthropic question here is: how do you know which approach to take? Or perhaps, more specifically, what are the criteria for deciding whether a model/organization should be scaled up or “propogated” and “diffused”?

    Nathaniel’s post focuses on spreading technology. That seems more open to scaling than the kinds of relationship-based interventions discussed in the Alliance article, which encourages propogation and adaption rather than scaling.

    This seems to me an obvious dichotomy with for-profit equivalents: big technological innovations like vaccines and cell phones have spread much faster and farther than other types of products and services. Univerisites and fancy restaurants, for example, seem to be more frequently be “propgated” and “diffused” rather than scaled up.

    What’s interesting, then, is that NFP is cited by all as a sucessful example but it’s a model where success would seem to be built on relationships. I would hazard a guess that the challenges of scaling NFP were mitigated by working within a profession, nursing, that has established ethics, culture, and knowledge. In this way, they could design a training which could be replicated with a reasonably high degree of fidelity and, ultimately, success. It might have involved changing the way nurses work but they were working with a consistent baseline.

    So that brings my list of things with the potential to scale up to two so far: technology changes and progams that work in concert with an established profession’s framework. I’m sure there are more out there…

  9. Great point Emily. I think an important point here is to distinguish between what can scale and what should scale. In the for-profit world, if you can scale it, then you should (you’ll make more money). So Starbucks effectively scaled the local coffee shop experience and Borders/Barnes & Nobles scaled the independent bookstore.

    Except in both cases, many people would argue that social value was lost! So for the social sector it seems we need to understand both what can scale AND what should scale and not assume that just because we can, we should.