Scaling Effectively: Create a Plan, Support the Vision and Manage the Risks

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

by Anne Sherman, Vice President, Nonprofit Strategy, Social Impact Exchange

Earlier this month I had the privilege of moderating a panel at Philanthropy New York called “Scaling for Social Impact:  Perspectives from Both Sides.”  Joining me on the panel were two funder-grantee “teams” representing two nonprofits engaged in scaling their impact. Representing the Sadie Nash Leadership Project (SNLP) were Pooja O’Hanlon, Executive Director of The Elmezzi Foundation and Chitra Aiyar, Executive Director of Sadie Nash Leadership Project, and representing The Parent-Child Home Program (PCHP) were Sarah Jankowski, Program Director of Viking Global Foundation, and Sarah Walzer, CEO of the Parent-Child Home Program.    
The two organizations are at very different points in their scaling trajectories.  PCHP, an early childhood home visiting initiative, is a 50-year-old organization active in over 150 communities across the country and internationally.  SNLP was founded in 2001 and supports and develops leadership in young women aged 11-22.  Most program activities occur in New York City and Newark, NJ.  Together, the two teams offered the audience an unusual opportutnity to see how scaling impact varies greatly over time, depending on many factors.  SNLP, for example, is a much younger organization that has achieved impressive results in a relatively short period of time.  The executive team and board are grappling with a very different set of questions related to scale, e.g.: what is “scaling” going to look like for our organizaiton?  What’s the right model?  How do we know we’re ready? 
I got to be part of this conversation because I work for the Social Impact Exchange, which exists to help develop growth capital markets for nonprofits scaling their impact.  In my experience, most of the writing and conversation relating to scale happens at a very high level.  For this conversation, I was hoping to explore with the panelists some of the more micro-level, yet significant, lessons learned.  Certainly, all the panelists shared many interesting insights.  But, as is often the case in these settings, some of the more interesting exchanges resulted from a question from the audience.  One person raised a great question about the role of leadership in a successful scaling process.   When I think about leadership, first and foremost, I think about vision and integrity, (full disclosure: before joining the Exchange I worked at TCC Group, a consultancy that works with nonprofits and foundations, and the firm’s perspective on leadership capacity has had a powerful influence on how I think about the issue).  
In addition the strength of vision and commitment that this requires, a third leadership element emerged during the discussion:  the ability to accept and manage risk.  Regardless of age or stage, scaling impact is an inherently risky enterprise, and the social sector is not structured to encourage or facilitate risk-taking—certainly not in this age of outcomes and accountability.  For the successful nonprofit, it can be frightening to experiment with new program approaches or to implement significant growth plans. It is hard enough to create an effective program model and then build a strong organization that can support it successfully over time. But to further determine that this model should be implemented at a much larger scale and that you and your team are the ones to do it—that feels downright audacious.   Both Sarah Walzer and Chitra Aiyar talked about how hard—yet how vitally important—it often is to continue to push their staff and themselves out of their comfort zone to try something new, even when conventional wisdom might indicate otherwise.  
The role of the private funder can be especially important here.  Sometimes, a funder can offer a nonprofit an opportunity to replicate a program in a new community, as was the case with the Elmezzi Foundation, which wanted to help Sadie Nash expand to Astoria and Long Island City.  Other times, the funder might add more value by encouraging the grantee to slow down and reconsider whether the current growth trajectory is sustainable. I was also impressed when Chitra talked about SNLP’s internal “innovation fund,” a pool of dollars set aside to ensure that the organization has the resources it needs to try new things.  
Sometimes, leadership and courage are best demonstrated when it’s time to put on the brakes.  Sarah Jankowksi talked about a self-described “pause phase”—those moments between periods of significant growth, during which both PCHP and Viking Global reflect on recent activities and think about the capacity building needs that might have changed as a result before engaging in additional growth.  Listening to Sarah and Sarah reflect on such conversations gave me a heightened appreciation of the value of open, candid relationships between funder and grantee—the sort that are easy to endorse in theory but are harder to achieve in practice.  
And, ultimately, that was one of the biggest takeaways for me.  Philanthropy has an essential role to play in scale, most of which might be funding effective programs and strong organizations.  But it’s also about providing nonprofit leaders the type of “in-kind” support that helps them advance the audacious visions.