Scaling for impact, beyond our walls

Yesterday’s post was about questions of scale, and whether we’re really asking the right question when we ask whether large or small nonprofit organizations are best-situated to deliver the impact we seek.

Today, I’m thinking about another piece of Creating Room to Read, questioning whether–if real scale is what we’re after–the nonprofit sector is even the right place to be looking.

It’s a sort of stunning disparity, really:

90% of nonprofits in the US have budgets of less than $300,000/year.

I mean, yes, there are a lot of them, but think about $300,000/year compared to the challenges we face–enormous, complex, entrenched, interconnected.

Can we ever expect nonprofit organizations to attract enough resources and build enough momentum (as individual organizations or even as fields) to meet the huge and urgently pressing problems against which we are arrayed, given that as our starting point?

I doubt it.

And, so, instead, how might we scale for impact beyond our own organizational capacity?

How, in particular, might advocacy be part of how organizations expand their reach?

How might we invest in government capacity–as in Room to Read’s efforts to work with education ministries, sharing best practices and highlighting their strides forward–or, in our own context, focusing government attention to promising approaches or particular aspects of critical issues and developing collaborations–in order to expand our reach?

How might we even direct, in some cases, some of our hard-fought funds, so obviously in short supply, to advocacy, in the recognition that no nongovernmental organization activity can replace the capacity of, in particular, the federal government?

When and how might advocacy yield the greatest dividends, for taking efforts to scale?

Philanthropy, in large part, is recognizing this, encouraging grantees to prioritize efforts to ‘institutionalize’ their approaches through advocacy with governmental actors.

Some nonprofits are considering factors of public capacity in their own program planning, as in Room to Read’s inclusion of provincial government functioning as a criterion for their investment decisions in a particular country, out of recognition that how well a government does in training teachers and paving roads will matter in determining the likelihood that the organization’s own investments encounter a climate conditioned for success.

All of this is not to say that I think that advocacy is best directed at getting government resources for a particular organization; indeed, I think that that more narrow frame of ‘advocacy’ can compromise some of nonprofits’ most valuable assets in the policy arena, including our issue expertise and perception of public interest.

Instead, I’m thinking about sort of ‘borrowing’ government capacity, by figuring out how advocacy can direct government resources and attention to the same problems we’re focused on, or, at least, stop creating additional barriers to which our organizations have to respond, such that we are working in tandem or on parallel tracks, with the end result of greater impact.

So, again, the most important questions for going to scale may not be “How big does our organization need to be?” or “How can we get bigger?” but, instead, “How can we use our capacity as leverage to get the elephant in the room–the government–on our side?”

2 responses to “Scaling for impact, beyond our walls

  1. Leverage… pondering.

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