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Volume XV, Number 1, Spring 2010
Issue Topic: Scaling Impact
Theory and Practice
Erin Harris of HFRP reviews the literature on this topic and discusses how nonprofits can successfully scale up an intervention, thus expanding impact to reach larger populations.
To increase their impact, many nonprofits seek to “scale up” or “go to scale” by expanding their interventions to reach larger populations. This scaling process most commonly involves implementing the intervention at new sites or expanding the capacity of existing sites to serve a larger number of participants.
So why go to scale? For nonprofits, the primary goal of scaling is to spread the impact of the intervention. Scaling can also be a practical approach: Rather than starting from scratch, it often makes more sense to take a model that works well in one community and try it out in another. Interventions that go to scale can also benefit from being part of a larger network where they can share resources and operating procedures. This larger network can often allow an intervention to produce bigger outcomes and at a faster pace than each individual site would be able to do on its own. Further, demonstrating impact on a larger scale can help create greater visibility and leverage in attracting additional support for the intervention.
Despite these benefits, many interventions fail to successfully go to scale. The process of scaling is not easy; it requires stakeholder support and buy-in, careful planning and assessment, and sufficient resources to maintain quality. This article describes the steps that nonprofits should follow in going to scale to help ensure success. These recommended steps are based on a review of the literature on scale (including the articles in this Evaluation Exchange issue).
1. Determine whether the intervention is ready to go to scale
There are several issues to consider in determining whether an intervention is ready for the scaling process. First and foremost, the intervention must have a strong theory of change or logic model that links the program inputs to the outcomes. This theory of change or logic model should convey which components are essential to the intervention’s success and which can allow for flexibility so that they can be tailored to local needs and available resources.
Second, the nonprofit needs to test the theory of change or logic model through evaluation of program implementation and outcomes to determine: (a) whether the intervention was implemented as intended, (b) whether the intervention was effective, (c) why the intervention was effective (i.e., what elements of the intervention were linked to its success), (d) how the elements that were linked to success can be transferred to new settings, and (e) whether the intervention’s effects were large enough to persist in the face of contextual variability.
Third, the intervention must have buy-in from stakeholders (including funders) for the scaling process. It is crucial that the intervention have support, especially in the form of additional funding and other necessary resources to ensure that the quality of the services and staff can be maintained at additional sites. Nonprofits can use the results of the evaluation to help convince funders and other key stakeholders of the value of the program and of how these benefits can be spread to new sites.
2. Select the best approach to bring the intervention to scale.
The term “scale” is used in the nonprofit sector to describe different approaches for expanding an intervention’s impact. Though there is no one right way to scale, it is important for nonprofits to consider all of the possible approaches for going to scale and then choose the one that best meets their needs.
In the business world, bringing something to scale usually refers to replicating something (e.g., a business model or service) in a new site with as much fidelity to the original as possible. As applied to the nonprofit sector, however, replication tends to have a more nuanced meaning, where the goal is to replicate the program’s impact rather than its components exactly as they were initially implemented. Replication is the most straightforward way of conceptualizing scale and allows nonprofits to benefit from the lessons from the business sector. However, replication as it applies to the nonprofit sector has been criticized for its narrow scope, in not viewing scale beyond the goal of growth in numbers served.
Another approach that has grown in popularity in the nonprofit sector is to scale ideas, regardless of whether those ideas include the “branding” of the original intervention. This broader view of scale takes into account the fact that ownership of the initiative is less of a motivating factor in the nonprofit sector than in the business world. It is often discussed using the term, “the traveling of ideas,” meaning that promising practices are communicated to others in a given field to help “diffuse new concepts, processes, and techniques.”1 This approach allows for greater adaptability to different settings and contexts.
A third model of thinking about scale in the nonprofit sector is to view it as having multiple facets, with various ways of scaling an intervention’s impact. For example, Cynthia Coburn describes scale as including four components: spread, depth, sustainability, and shift in reform ownership (see the article, Applying a Broader Concept of Scale to Evaluate a Funding Strategy). Similarly, Peter Frumkin describes scale as having five different meanings: financial strength, program expansion, comprehensiveness, multisite replication, and accepted doctrine (see the article, The Five Meanings of Scale in Philanthropy). Both of these models help get at the complexities of scale in the nonprofit sector and create a conception of scale that is more meaningful and sustainable than simple replication.
3. Select sites that are best suited to the intervention.
As indicated above, the intervention’s theory of change should provide information about what elements of the intervention are necessary for its success and where there is room for negotiation and flexibility. For example, in selecting new sites to implement the Nurse-Family Partnership program, the program developer, David Olds, determined that the new sites had to have “certain capacities to operate and sustain the program with high quality.” In particular, the sites had to have the capacity for “an organization and community that are fully knowledgeable and supportive of the program; a staff that is well trained and supported in the conduct of the program model; and real-time information on implementation of the program and its achievement of benchmarks to guide efforts in continuous quality improvement.2 As part of the selection process, nonprofits should ensure that the communities being considered for the new sites have the local capacity to support the elements of the intervention that are necessary for its success.
In addition, the intervention should be implemented in communities where there is an identified need that is not being sufficiently met by existing community resources. Thus, the site-selection process should include ensuring that the program is not moving into an area that is already saturated with similar services. Otherwise, the intervention is likely to find itself competing for participants and local resources (e.g., quality staff) while adding little value to the local community.
4. Develop the capacity and infrastructure to manage multiple sites.
Managing multiple sites requires additional structures and procedures to ensure that these programs are effectively and efficiently managed across the larger system. Several pieces must be in place to ensure that the organizational infrastructure can support the scaling process.
First, nonprofits need to develop management structures to coordinate services both across and within sites. In particular, the intervention must develop and communicate roles for local sites and central offices so that it is clear who is responsible for which aspects of running the program. Systems must be in place for communication across the various levels so that everyone is working toward a common set of goals as part of a coordinated team effort.
Second, resources and structures must be in place at the local level that can help ensure quality, such as strong local leadership and qualified service delivery staff. This piece often proves to be one of the most challenging issues for nonprofits in scaling: how to maintain quality as the program grows. However, if the sites have been carefully selected as those best suited to the intervention’s theory of change, quality control will be less of a problem. Still, program developers need to be vigilant in ensuring that quality standards are met and upheld. To ensure quality, nonprofits need to allocate resources to evaluate implementation and outcomes across sites (see step 5 below for more detail).
Third, program leaders should be aware and take advantage of resources and strengths in the local community that can benefit the intervention. At the same time, program developers should be aware of deficits in the local setting that they will need to overcome (or accommodate). To deal with the local context, flexibility in implementation can help strengthen the intervention. For example, an after school program being implemented in a community with a strong school system might consider finding ways to partner with local schools to hire school-day teachers as program staff. That same program might also want to work with other local after school programs to coordinate their services to complement (rather than duplicate) one another. Strategies will differ from site to site, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the local context.
5. Evaluate the scaling process.
As the intervention is implemented at new sites, the scaling process itself should be evaluated. Implementation evaluation conducted during the scaling process should focus on continuous learning and improvement; as part of this process, the evaluation findings can help inform any necessary adjustments that need to be made to the program to account for the local context. These adjustments are often inevitable; even with a strong theory of change, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate all the possible ways in which the local context may affect program implementation and outcomes.
Evaluation can also take place at the end of the scaling process to determine the successes (and failures) of the process and what led to those successes and failures. Nonprofits can then use these lessons to help inform the intervention’s future scaling strategies and to provide guidance to other interventions in their scaling processes. They can also use positive outcomes to promote the intervention to potential new stakeholders (including funders) and to demonstrate success to existing stakeholders. Thus, these positive outcomes can be helpful in generating additional funding and other resources to scale the intervention even further.
6. Share promising practices and lessons about scale with other nonprofits.
Scale-up is a relatively new concept in the nonprofit sector. Theories and practices related to scale-up in the nonprofit world are still emerging as those involved work to identify best practices. Although some of the frameworks and lessons from scale can be adapted from the business world, the nonprofit world has its own set of opportunities and challenges that affect the scaling process, not the least of which is the fact that the motivations for scaling are often less straightforward than in the business world, where profit is usually the primary motive. The more nonprofits are willing to take the risk to go to scale, and work to overcome the challenges in doing so, the more opportunities will be available to identify and adapt promising practices in the scaling process specific to the needs of nonprofits.
Project Manager, Harvard Family Research Project
Key Readings on Scale
Bradach, J. (2003, Spring). Going to scale. The Stanford Social Innovation Review, 18–25.
1. Scott, W. R., Deschenes, S., Hopkins, K., Newman, A., & McLaughlin, M. (2006). Advocacy organizations and the field of youth services: Ongoing efforts to restructure a field. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 35 (1), 691–714.
2. Olds, D. L. (2007). The Nurse-Family Partnership: From trials to practice, p. 27. Federal Research Paper. Online at: www.earlychildhoodrc.org/events/presentations/olds.pdf. For more information on the scaling process of the Nurse-Family Partnership, see: Goodman, A. (2006). The story of David Olds and the Nurse Home Visiting Program. Princeton: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Online at: www.rwjf.org/files/publications/other/DavidOldsSpecialReport0606.pdf.