Hot topic: should nonprofits scale for greater impact?

My very dog-eared copy of the book I review here

[Sixth in a series related to strategic planning]

A critical place to start any strategic planning process is a good self-assessment of an organization’s capabilities. Woven throughout many of the self assessment tools out there (I mentioned two good ones in the last post, and the Nonprofit Resource Center has posted another bevy) are two implicit notions: 1) bigger is better when it comes to impact, and 2) nonprofits  must develop enterprise funds as a way to stabilize their revenues.

I’m not sure either of those two premises are true for all nonprofits, but nonprofits interested in scaling and/or enterprise funds should check out “Scaling Your Social Venture: Becoming an Impact Entrepreneur,” by Paul N. Bloom, adjunct professor of social entrepreneurship and marketing with the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University (Palgrave Macmillan 2012).

Scaling, Dr. Bloom reminds us, is defined as “achieving more efficient and effective adoption of your innovation.” Scaling is hot, hot, hot in the funders’ community, and in a not-unrelated trend, hot in the nonprofit community. Why? “These folks want to change the world,” Dr. Bloom says in his preface, “not just run a sustainable and effective do-gooder organization.”

Even a nonprofit that intends to stay focused on a local community, however, can learn from this book. He offers four assessment tools:

1) A self assessment of scaling success with scale (1 through 7) responses to questions including “…we are satisfied with how much we have alleviated the problem,” and, “…we are in better shape than anyone else to have an impact on the problem.

2) A self assessment of the theory of change. I agree with Dr. Bloom that organizations must “think deeply about the actions or initiatives you are trying to implement and the effects, outcomes and impacts that you want to achieve as a result of what you are doing.” His assessment tool in chapter 10 can help organizations pinpoint the lever that organizations are most reliant on to create change. For example, if an organization depends on labor-intensive interventions to provide the program services, then you’d better have staffing and management figured out, which he says includes: inspiring leadership; managers with planning and supervision skills; board members who contribute monetarily and/or with know-how; productive recruiting and training programs; employees or volunteers capable of delivering high quality services or solutions to problems; and roles and responsibilities for employees and volunteers that are understood and function well.

3) A self-assessment of starting resources — my personal favorite — that includes such scale statements as “…we have people in place who possess the skills necessary to run our programs,” and, “…we are not just scraping by financially.”

4) And finally, a self-assessment of organizational capabilities.

Scaling may be generating a lot of buzz, but as Dr. Bloom suggests, it isn’t easy. Considering his structured approach, clearly described in the book, is a good place to start. For an overview of his SCALERS model, check out this description on the Harvard Family Research Project. Then buy the book for great case studies and how-to tips.

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