Tag Archives: impact

Taking innovations to scale


I spend a fair amount of time thinking about scale.

As in, how can we bring enough good to enough people to really make a difference?

How can we build delivery mechanisms that can make great ideas accessible to all who need and deserve them?

And how can we accomplish scale without completely losing agility and responsiveness and locality, and the empowerment that should accompany them?

There is a really thoughtful article on the Stanford Social Innovation Review about the paradoxes of innovation, and all of it is worth reading. It raises concerns about the dangers of ‘cultification’ as people follow the latest innovation to the detriment of established approaches (without necessarily attending to impact), as well as the difficulty of compromising enough–but not too much–to cross boundaries in pursuit of workable innovations.

But the piece that jumped out at me most is around the different processes needed to spark innovation and, then, to build the systems capable of scaling that innovation.

This third paradox is, itself, the subject of a SSIR article on the balance between innovation and scale.

The breakthrough for me in this analysis is the model of the organization’s capacity for continuous innovation (OCCI), which positions innovation and scale not as diametrically opposed but, instead, as both part of the organization’s evolution–in essence, innovating new approaches and then innovating the systems necessarily to scale those innovations. There is tension, clearly, as one seeks to increase variance in search of the best approach while the other decreases variance in order to standardize a system.

But tension can be creative, and, importantly, some of the same internal and external characteristics are associated with high levels of capacity in both functions, knitted together as OCCI. This is so critical, because I think that we often fall into a trap of reifying nonprofit organizations and, then, assuming that they are like people–either really good at divergent thinking or more convergent types, but fundamentally incapable of both coming up with good ideas and then figuring out how to tweak them into stability.

That can lead to dangerous type-casting, where some organizations do the scaling (often losing something valuable about the nature of the intervention) while others perpetually experiment, yielding tremendous outcomes but never able to really ‘move the needle’ on our greatest social problems.

The article includes a fairly lengthy case study of an organization innovating and scaling, but I’m interested in other examples from your own work, of how you create and sustain organizational cultures that simultaneously seek new solutions and figure out how to get those solutions to a scope and size where they can wield maximum potency.

Where do you see organizations ‘stuck’ in ceaseless innovation or, conversely, preoccupied with scaling approaches that may not deserve it? And where do you see bright spots of organizations with OCCI that helps them make it all look easy?

Measuring Social Impact


The Stanford Social Innovation Review had a special series on measuring social impact this spring, full of so many terrific insights that it took me quite awhile to sift through all of the articles and, then, compose my thoughts at least somewhat, to post here.

I’d love to discuss any of the pieces, and I welcome your responses to my reactions, too.

Above all, I’m very glad to see this conversation within this sphere; if we’re not asking what our true impact is, we’re missing the only metric that really matters:

Are we making the difference we intend, and that so desperately needs to be made?

  • It is somewhat disturbing, really, that an article entitled, “Listening to Those who Matter Most, the Beneficiaries” even still needs to be written. The article highlights some promising beneficiary feedback initiatives around the world, giving detailed descriptions of how the perspectives of students in struggling schools and of patients in health care settings are being used to inform program innovations. It is my hope that the challenges outlined and the case made for the advantages that accrue when participants (I like this term better than ‘beneficiaries’) actively shape activities can both help to push public policy in this direction, too. Then we can really get to impact.
  • There is a brief outline of a larger academic paper centering on how to evaluate the effectiveness of civic engagement and advocacy efforts. Importantly, it incorporates multiple stakeholder perspectives, but I am still dissatisfied; it feels, to me, too much like asking about participant ‘satisfaction’, which may or may not be a good proxy for efficacy, even in the context of civic engagement (which, after all, is designed to foster feelings of good will within the community).
  • My advocacy evaluation work focuses on using evaluation to improve performance, but we are often constrained by the inadequacies of our evaluation approaches to capture the rather elusive nature of advocacy and social change activities. This dynamic, between measuring to improve and improving measurement, is the subject of one of the articles. It mostly summarizes a workshop session related to evaluation, but I appreciate the inclusion of several specific and innovative approaches. Sometimes we have to get a bit ‘meta’, stepping back from our work in order to invest in the capacity to perform it better.

The folks at SSIR have been leading the field on the question of how to really define ‘impact’, and so it’s not their oversight, but I do think that we, collectively, need to spend more time within our organizations, our profession, and our field really clarifying what impact means, and what it looks like, in order to ensure that we will, indeed, know it when we see it.

But maybe approaching it from this direction–how can we measure it, before we are necessarily sure what it is, should offer some appeal.

If one of the reasons we have excused ourselves from getting serious about setting the bar for ‘impact’ accurately has been that we don’t know how we will be able to know when we’ve reached it, then perhaps addressing the latter will light a fire under us for the former.

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?”

Context matters: In defense of ‘wraparound’

One of the tensions in the nonprofit world today, especially around questions of scaling, relates to whether our needs are best served through the creation and maintenance of ‘niche’ nonprofits that provide a few core services and do so very well, versus the development of a smaller number of large institutions that are each capable of delivering holistic services in their respective fields.

Do we want many Davids or a few (well-intentioned, of course) Goliaths?

Do we get to scale more effectively by fostering many nimble, ’boutique’ nonprofits, or by directing resources to organizations more equal in size to the problems they confront?

I have thought, though, for awhile, that this might really be the wrong question. That maybe we should be spending more time thinking about whether our services–our response to the problems–are scaled correctly, not whether the particular vehicles through which we’re delivering them–our organizations–are.

Because, when it comes to tackling the big challenges plaguing our society–illiteracy, poverty, gender discrimination, racial injustice, obesity and ill health, growing educational disparities, pervasive underemployment, rampant incarceration–context really matters.

It’s not just that smaller nonprofits with a more narrow profile of services may be ‘outgunned’ in these battles, but that even the service models of bigger organizations, the way that they structure and understand their missions, may be missing some links, too.

But when organizations expand beyond their boundaries–regardless of their size–I often sense considerable pushback, around the idea of ‘mission drift’ or concerns about others’ turf or fear that ‘core’ services (however those are understood) will suffer as the service scope grows.

In Creating Room to Read, the founder describes a very different approach, one where the organization fairly quickly saw that achieving its goals of literacy, especially for girls around the world, would require far more than the initial objective of building schools and libraries. In order to succeed, Room to Read would have to look at the skills that girls need and the contexts in which they often fail to develop, the social supports that can help girls overcome cultural taboos against advanced education for females, and the tangible obstacles they face (including transportation, meals at school, and childcare for siblings).

Importantly, attending to this context doesn’t always mean adjusting the scale and size of the organization itself, since there are other ways to ‘scale up’, and it isn’t perceived as ‘Christmas-treeing’, tacking on anything that seems appealing, without thought as to the distraction that additional services may pose.

Instead, it’s about boxing in our problems in order to attack them.

It’s about wrapping those we’re concerned about in the mantle of all of the essential supports they say they need, and figuring out how to do that through a combination of service expansion internally, strategic partnerships, and advocacy with public institutions.

In essence, then, I guess that I’m more interested in the ‘what’, when it comes to scaling to match our challenges, than I am the ‘how’.

I don’t know that I care, all that much, if we pursue models of many small organizations, working collaboratively, or investments in large and robust responses.

What matters is that we go wide, with our lens, looking at the context in which problems flourish.

After all, it’s only mission drift if you’re moving away from what really matters, or if you’re focused more on the narrow provision of services than a compelling vision of the world as it should be.

Otherwise, it’s just approaching our challenges from different angles.

Until we have them surrounded.

In search of elusive collective impact

This summer, I spent a lot of my time working on a sort of landscape assessment of the advocacy capacity–individually and collectively–of organizations working to combat obesity and support healthy eating and active living in the Kansas City area.

It was a tremendously exciting project, for me–a chance to learn more about work happening in an area that I care about but have relatively little experience in, and an opportunity to try out some of the tools I’ve been reading about, like a new network mapping system and a different method of analyzing coalition advocacy capacity.

For me, that passes for absolutely thrilling. Seriously.

I may have some other insights from this work to share in the future, but, for today, I want to highlight what was an unexpected development:

Everyone was talking about collective impact.

OK, so not technically everyone.

But, where I was expecting to have to prod folks into thinking, not about what their own capacity looks like or how they leverage that towards policy change, but, instead, how their capacity fits with that of others in the field, for greatest combined impact…

They were already there.

Several informants (I interviewed almost 40 people working in the field) talked about things like the need for shared metrics and a common vision, the importance of a network mentality so that individual organizations’ capacities were truly available to others, and the need for ‘backbone’ organizations that can catalyze a field approach.

They didn’t have the answers, certainly. It’s one thing to know that we need complementary skills and strategies AND the will to use them collaboratively, and another thing to really make that happen.

But they’re thinking about it. And talking about it.

And hoping for help–from foundations (who can fund in ways that encourage consideration of combined contribution, rather than individual attribution), from consultants (who can help them to map the capacities of others and focus on their best ‘niche’ in the network), and from each other (because impact is, after all, what we should all be in this business for).

I can’t definitely prove that this attention to collective impact comes from this Stanford Social Innovation Review article, although more than one informant mentioned it (and one even emailed it to me after we spoke).

It’s definitely worth reading, though, if you haven’t.

And I’d love to hear from you, today.

First, what about collective impact? What would it look like, in the field where you work? What would it take to get there?

And, second, has there been an article that has really ‘echoed’ where you work? A particular way of thinking about organizational change, or capacity, or advocacy, or, really, anything, that has shaped how you and your colleagues see what you do, and what you need to do differently? I’d love to see it.

We mostly face complex problems that have multiple potential intervention points, in this world.

It seems that most of the quick ‘technical’ fixes already have been. Fixed, that is.

So it’s going to take thinking, and working, collectively, in order to get to the scale where we can make a difference.