Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling: What’s Next?back

Yves Salama, CEO of Charity Matrix

It’s hard to imagine an inaugural conference spurring more thought, discussion and contacts than spurred by the Social Impact Exchange Conference on bringing nonprofit innovation to scale. That all participants are eager for the follow-up next year is undeniable. The question is where will the conversation pick up? Will it take off from where it ended on June 18, or leapfrog to encompass ideas generated during the next 12 months?

Scaling allows organizations to broaden the scope of their missions both geographically and in population served.  It may be arguable whether organizations with the best ideas, the best people or most effective operating model accomplish that transformation.  Or if all three characteristics are needed. Let’s look at them: 

Ideas are key in that they draw donors. As long as donations are available, programs can be executed. Success is measured by the donor and the board.  Scaling requires deeper pockets and more donors. Generally – and this is also true in the private sector – ideas that don’t scale do not survive. Only governments, with power to tax, can sustain ineffective ideas for a long time.

People carry the torch to raise funds and execute the mission.  Successful campaigns and programs are generally credited to the leadership. And the double-edged sword of that distinction is that unsuccessful campaigns or programs are also attributed to the person in charge. When the attention is focused only on people, then their intentions, presence, management skill, intelligence, creativity, training, or good ideas fall into the background. The revolving door of finding good people preempts the build-up of institutional knowledge and undermines scaling opportunities. More, it entrenches bad habits (e.g., bureaucracy) and exacts a heavy price on donors. It also opens the door for more nimble and ambitious organizations to compete for resources, opportunities, and better ideas.

With good ideas and people, nonprofits can address scaling their process to raise funds or implement their programs.  Processes developed by individual chapters are already shared with affiliates in large federations; they are generally built on a technology platform.  It takes two steps to implement: 

  1. Identifying, reviewing, and documenting the process (or process mapping), and 
  2. Evaluating its impact.

Wikipedia describes process mapping as “activities involved in defining exactly what a business entity does, who is responsible, to what standard a process should be completed and how the success of a business process can be determined. Once this is done, there can be no uncertainty as to the requirements of every internal business process … The first step in gaining control over an organization is to know and understand the basic processes.” This is deceptively difficult because it involves translating tacit knowledge to standard rules: “so Joe,  how do you distribute mosquito nets in Central Africa?”  

Evaluating Impact
Every process requires a mechanism to monitor and control it’s performance. Done right, that mechanism will be built into the technology platform and not require additional effort. But it is particularly hard for nonprofits to monitor performance because the benefits are not easily translated to dollars and cents (revenues, profits, cash flow).  Distributing 1,000 mosquito nets to the population of one village is one result, an inspection to see how many actually use it is another, and how it reduced incidents of malaria requires even closer examination.   

I argue that it takes more than ideas, people and operating model, although these are certainly needed.  It also takes context, which I’ll address in my next blog: How do you adapt a business process to each context successfully?

For complete coverage of the 2010 inaugural Social Impact Exchange Conference: Taking Successful Innovation to Scale, go to Ventureneer SIEX10.