Having the Potential to Scaleback

This year’s Social Impact Exchange conference was a great opportunity to bring people together from traditional philanthropy and donor advised funds, as well as high net worth individuals, to engage in a dialogue about the complex issues that are inherent in trying to drive innovation and impact. We’ve walked away better able to understand how we scale promising innovation. We recognize the solutions that we’re all trying to work toward require us to enter into strategic collaborations with many different kinds of partners. We cannot scale something on our own.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Vulnerable Populations portfolio’s interest in the Social Impact Exchange is due to a desire to learn how to scale the impact of the really promising practices and programs that we have funded. When we decide to make an investment in a project, we are also making an investment in the capacity of the organization to be able to grow and develop. We’re trying to use our resources to support a pipeline of strong nonprofits that have evidence of effectiveness and of their potential to scale.

I say potential because one of the things we know is that not every program or organization can or should scale. So, what are the questions we ask when we try to determine if a project is ready to grow and scale?

  • To begin with, we need to ask ourselves if the idea has merit. Can it create a truly fundamental change in the problem that it’s addressing? Playworks is a good example of an early stage idea – making recess a safe environment for play and, through that, creating a change in the school climate – that we chose to support.
  • Does it have broad application? Is it durable? In other words, can it be adapted under multiple and diverse operating conditions and in communities? We know that projects don’t necessarily replicate with great fidelity. We have to ask if it’s a durable enough model that it can be adapted. With Playworks, the idea was interesting enough to use that we chose to test it to determine if it could be replicated, taking it from a few schools in the Bay Area to a few more cities.
  • Where is the organization in its life cycle? Is it ready for growth? Does it have strong enough evidence? By supporting Playworks to add additional cities, the organization was able to gather evidence about the effectiveness of their strategy and approach.
  • Does it have a business model, a plan for spread, for growing and replicating in other cities? Does it have a strategy that can be executed? Once a business plan was in place for Playworks, we were able to invest a substantial amount of resources to enable them to achieve a national impact and visibility.
  • Does the organization have leadership that can work across sectors and nontraditional environments to drive change? Does it not only have the right leader who is running the organization but the right leadership on the board? One of the biggest challenges for Playworks, according to their President and Founder Jill Vialet, is finding the right people to be in a leadership position as they spread from city to city. If you don’t have the right kind of leadership at all levels of the project it’s going to be much more difficult to scale.

This year’s Social Impact Exchange conference had the right people and it had great conversations. The next big step is determining how to create “the deal.” How do we get the donor advised funds and the high net worth individuals to invest in the projects – like Playworks – that are being put forward as being ready for greater impact and scale?  That is our big challenge.

Guest blogger Jane Isaacs Lowe is Team Director and Senior Program Officer, Vulnerable Populations, at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.