Standout programs of any size tend to be led by dynamic people with endless energy and keen instincts (among our grantees, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Debbie Bial of Posse Foundation, Dave Levin of the Kipp Foundation, and Jon Schnur of America Achieves come to mind). The solution may seem simple – find and nurture more of these dynamic people. But that overlooks the fact that even if you can, they only have two arms and one head, so there’s a limit to the economies of scale that you can achieve simply by identifying more leaders to serve more people with the same approach.
From my perspective, the key to considering an organization or program’s potential to scale lies in asking the right questions. Much of the emphasis on scale comes (I would hazard) from the for-profit world, in which rapid growth – more customers and revenue – equals success. Yet in a corporate environment, successful scaling begins with an analysis of whether the product will sell in another market, how much capital it will take to sell it, and who will lead the entry into the new market. These are questions we can and should be asking in the nonprofit or social profit world as well.
Whether you’re a funder considering the potential of a grantseeker to scale a nonprofit, or you represent a nonprofit seeking funding to scale your work, here are some questions I recommend asking:
If these questions have not been answered, our response to grant seekers asking for funds to scale is “come back to us when you think you have those answers.”
It’s time for leaders in the sector—foundations and service providers alike—to ask and answer those same questions, and more; in short, to apply more critical thinking and discipline to the “scaling” discussion than we have in the past. When we do, we stand to exponentially increase the likelihood of success for those scaling projects that we do take on.