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Nonprofit Management

Scaling Smarter, Scaling for Keeps

Lessons from the front lines of bringing social programs to scale.

Bringing social programs to scale is a common goal—yet it’s rarely realized. The threat of cuts to such programs, amplified by the looming fiscal crisis, means we not only need to ramp up proven innovations, but we also need to be smarter and more effective about how we do so.

In his first term, President Obama committed to “seeking out creative, results-oriented programs … and helping them replicate their efforts across America.” In 2011, the federal Social Innovation Fund (SIF) made one of its first awards to the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national community development intermediary dedicated to the revitalization of low-income neighborhoods, to expand its Financial Opportunity Center (FOC) program.

LISC’s Financial Opportunities Centers help low-income families by offering comprehensive counseling services, including financial coaching to support budgeting and repairing credit; support for getting and keeping a good job; and assistance in identifying and applying for public benefits.

Early results have been extremely promising. Clients receiving this set of services showed more dramatic gains in employment, credit scores, net income, and net assets than those who received such help piecemeal. Since early 2011, LISC has, with the support of this grant and other investments, expanded the reach of FOCs from five cities and 23 centers to 22 cities and 68 centers. Other grantees are getting results as well. SIF grantee New Profit, for example, has helped to fund the successful expansion of KIPP charter schools.

Successfully bringing social programs to scale is still relatively rare, but in analyzing LISC’s successful expansion of its FOC model, we made a number of discoveries that might help similar organizations.

In 2004, Gregory Ratliff and Kristen Moy published a groundbreaking analysis about how to bring community-development finance programs to scale. Their framework identifies three areas important to success: product, organization, and industry. We applied this structure to help learn from our experience expanding the FOC program.

From a product standpoint, the FOC model stands apart from other workforce development initiatives or two reasons. First, it delivers “bundled” services (for example, job training and placement alongside financial coaching, credit repair, and job readiness preparation). This helps clients become more economically stable by making progress on multiple aspects of their financial lives. Second, getting clients what they need requires that staff have access to a continuous flow of high-quality data on client services and their outcomes.

Neither of these comes naturally. Coordinating the work of financial coaches, employment specialists, and public benefits counselors has proven challenging, even when these people are housed in a single organization. And managing and analyzing data means time away from delivering services to clients, even though that data can be critical to maintaining quality and improving services.

At the organizational level, most of the centers LISC supports had to adapt existing programs and practices to the new model. We also had to create and sustain industry-level support—including referral networks, access to the mainstream workforce and public benefits systems, and, most importantly, funding.

Throughout the research and development phase, LISC staff and its partners learned how to organize service delivery effectively, infuse it into each organization’s ongoing work, and perfect the tools needed to generate compelling performance data.

Defining LISC’s intermediary role was equally important. During the rollout, LISC’s local offices and national infrastructure backed the expansion, enabling staff to share best practices. LISC also supplied direct technical assistance, training, ideas for new program practices, and—critically—a pool of national “scaling capital” that included private matching dollars to the federal SIF funding.

There are some important takeaways here. First, successful scaling requires some standardization. While granting some flexibility, LISC works hard to maintain the integrity of the core FOC model.

Second, infrastructure is critical, and requires conscious investment and development. LISC has continued to invest in program delivery processes, protocols, and standards; performance measurement; methods of direct technical assistance and peer-to-peer learning; and resource generation.

Third, scaling can only happen through a deliberate and strategic rollout. The SIF funding enabled LISC to formalize its program expansion and build the national structure needed to ensure a disciplined process.

That said, certain aspects of our scaling process are unique. The FOC model demands client participation and changes in behavior, meaning some customization is necessary. It also varies from community to community, and thus entails constant monitoring and adjustment. Few organizations can go this alone, which is why LISC’s local and national infrastructure is so critical.

At the organizational level, LISC works with community-based groups that are embedded in the social and political contexts of their neighborhoods. As our partner organizations are themselves varied, they rely on the local LISC office for technical support and accountability.

At the industry level, FOCs deliver services within a highly decentralized system of workforce development, public-sector funding programs, philanthropic organizations, and nonprofit and community-based social supports. Just as organizations are varied, so too are the local environments in which they operate. Even tested models can’t be expected to immediately become fully functioning in new settings. But such programs become more effective and efficient as technical assistance and peer support becomes stronger and more integrated.

Successful scaling ultimately requires sustainability; the current fiscal crisis underscores that need. As the FOC model will always rely on some subsidies, we also measure success in how well the legal and administrative structure of the mainstream workforce system incorporates our approach. Only when our model becomes part of the policy mainstream can we claim to have fully gone to scale.

Update: On Wednesday, April 24th, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) will hold a conference in Washington, D.C. to explore how organizations can move innovative programs that serve low-income families from promising pilots to mainstream practices—and crack the code of bringing smart ideas to scale.

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