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Transformative Scale: The Social Sector’s New Frontier

A look at the challenge of achieving impact at a scale that actually solves problems.

SSIR x Bridgespan: Achieving Transformative Scale SSIR x Bridgespan: Achieving Transformative Scale Achieving Transformative Scale is an eight-week blog series exploring pathways that social sector leaders around the world are pursuing to take solutions that work to a scale that truly transforms society.

I believe we’re in the midst of a fundamental shift in the social sector. Over the last several months, nearly every leader I know in the field has started to ask the same types of questions: How can my organization create impact at a scale that actually approaches the size of the problem (i.e., create transformative scale)? When should I stop growing my direct-service operation and invest in other scale pathways? What can philanthropists do to support transformative scale?  What kinds of “system change” and “field building” strategies really make a difference?  What kinds of relationships between nonprofits, philanthropists, and government create the greatest potential for transformative scale?

When my Bridgespan colleague Abe Grindle and I wrote the article “Transformative Scale: The Future of Growing What Works” for the spring issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, we hoped that it would spark sector-wide conversation and inspire further work on these critical questions. This series on scaling, presented in partnership with SSIR, represents the next step. Over the next eight weeks, 16 leaders from around the world will weigh in with their insights, struggles, and questions regarding the challenge of achieving impact at a scale that actually solves problems.

The social sector has been building up to this moment for some time. Over the past couple of decades, leaders have developed a growing catalog of programs and practices that have real evidence of effectiveness. And they’ve demonstrated the ability to successfully replicate these to multiple cities, states, even nations in some cases, reaching thousands or even millions of those in need. Despite all this progress, today even the most impressive programs and field-based practices rarely reach more than a tiny fraction of the population in need.

So we find ourselves at a crossroads. We have seen a burst of program innovation over the past two decades; we now need an equivalent burst of innovation in strategies for scaling.

The goal of this blog series is to continue to help spark sector-wide thinking and conversation around this challenge. Leaders from many different domains and positions in the sector will share their perspectives. Some will elaborate on pathways described in the SSIR article. Others will push into new territory, posing new questions and framing new perspectives on what it will take to achieve such scale. We also want to hear from you, particularly about practical insights into how to pursue pathways to transformative scale. Saying we need more “field building” or “systems change” begs for details: What are we really talking about and what does it really take?

I also invite you to join me next Tuesday, April 29, for a webinar conversation about transformative scale (registration is free). The webinar will provide a chance to hear from and engage directly with two contributors to the blog series—Gerald Chertavian, CEO of Year Up, and Susan Davis, cofounder, president, and CEO of BRAC USA, an independent grant-making affiliate of BRAC International. Chertavian and Davis represent two very different organizations, but both are grappling with this same issue.

In addition, an amazing group of leaders will contribute posts about different aspects of transformative scale—practical visionaries who are aiming for widespread, enduring change in the world. The series will feature:

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, on creating a “culture” of health; Billy Shore, founder and CEO of Share Our Strength, on the transition to making real the No Child Hungry aspiration; Wendy Kopp, cofounder and CEO of Teach for All, on scaling an approach, not an organization, globally; Molly Melching, founder and executive director of Tostan, on listening to the community you serve; Charlie MacCormack, former CEO of Save the Children, on ways donor strategies impede achieving impact at scale; Rob Waldron, CEO of Curriculum Associates, on the key underpinning of any scale strategy—hiring great people; Mark Bonchek, founder and chief catalyst at thinkORBIT, on the importance of platforms versus products; Steve McCormick, former CEO of the Moore Foundation, on developing conservation’s new paradigm; Rebecca Onie and Sonia Sarkar, cofounder, CEO, and chief of staff of Health Leads, on achieving impact at scale within the healthcare system; Kevin Hassey and Jordan Kassalow, CEO, and founder and cochairman, respectively, of Vision Spring, on testing multiple pathways to scale and sustainable business models; Michael Chu, Harvard Business School senior lecturer in the Social Enterprise Initiative, on systems change using commercial markets; and Nancy Lublin and Aria Finger, CEO and COO of Do Something, on the role of technology and demand-generation.

The aim of this blog series and webinar is to deliver a wealth of first-hand insights that will advance our collective understanding of transformative scale, and I hope it will engage others in the collective effort of finding pathways to profound change. Please join the conversation and post your own thoughts over the course of the series.

See more from SSIR x Bridgespan: Achieving Transformative Scale

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COMMENTS

  • Looking forward to this series. But a great pity that the set of contributors is so US centric.

  • Laura Foulke's avatar

    BY Laura Foulke

    ON April 24, 2014 12:27 PM

    Really looking forward to this series. These are such important questions and no easy answers. Perfect for an organization that is embarking on strategic planning this year.

  • Jeff, thanks for the post.  We at UNDP are looking at what can different sciences (ecology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience) teach us in terms of going to scale in development and mirroring evolutionary principles in the work we do.  Some early insights are here (http://europeandcis.undp.org/blog/2014/04/15/evolving-finch-fund-insights-on-scaling/) and we’re about to test them on the ground in few months. 

    looking forward to hopefully exchanging notes on this?
    best
    Millie

  • Jeff Bradach's avatar

    BY Jeff Bradach

    ON April 28, 2014 03:33 PM

    Hi MIllie,  The theories and metaphors from evolutionary biology do cast new light on scale questions—and more broadly systems thinking.  I enjoyed and recommend your blog - and the post you link to in particular.  It feels like we are just beginning to scratch the surface of how this thinking really applies to social phenomena and scalem so especially interested to learn of your tests on the ground.  Keep us posted!

    This weekend I read a piece on the self organization of ants—http://shar.es/TMriK—which highlights the ways complex, scaled structures emerge from simple rules.  Another analogy that sparks ideas.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Jeff

  • Jeff Bradach's avatar

    BY Jeff Bradach

    ON April 29, 2014 09:10 AM

    For those interested, Mario Marino posted a thoughtful comment on another blog that surfaced some other examples of major scale that warrant a deeper look.  Interested in capturing other specific examples, patterns, lessons have seen related to transformative scale.  See http://www.bridgespan.org/Publications-and-Tools/Strategy-Development/Transformative-Scale-Nine-Pathways.aspx#comments.

    Best,
    Jeff

  • BY Simon Winter

    ON May 1, 2014 09:35 AM

    This promises to be a very timely and exciting series.  I just posted a blog about TechnoServe’s strategic plan, its commitment to scaling impact through focusing on high potential sectors and cross-cutting interventions - and some of the challenges thereto http://www.nextbillion.net/blogpost.aspx?blogid=3849#comment-1360347006

  • Millie Begovic Radojevic's avatar

    BY Millie Begovic Radojevic

    ON May 2, 2014 01:56 AM

    Jeff, thanks so much for the post on rules for ants self-organizing! Definitely chimes in nicely to our learning- we’re in the middle of designing a new approach to scaling up based on this discussion with a series of scientists that we spoke with.  we should be hitting the field-testing in the next couple of weeks so will keep in touch, and in the mean time, Duncan Green of Oxfam wrote a piece on our adventure that may be of interest: http://bit.ly/1kmRlzU

    Cheers!
    Millie

  • BY Mohan L Jain

    ON May 5, 2014 10:19 AM

    Where are audios from the webinar from 4/29?

  • Regina Starr Ridley's avatar

    BY Regina Starr Ridley

    ON May 6, 2014 08:33 AM

    [Responding for Stanford Social Innovation Review].  To listen to the recent webinar led by Jeff Bradach, “Transformative Scale: The Social Sector’s New Frontier,” go to http://www.ssireview.org/webinars Once .you have registered for the webinar—which is complimentary—you can listen to it/watch it as many times as you’d like. Note: it is not available as just an audio file.

  • BY Mal Warwick

    ON May 26, 2014 12:26 PM

    I’ve only lately come to this series, though eagerly so. However, I was dismayed to discover—in your opening paragraph, no less—that you wrote “What kinds of relationships between nonprofits, philanthropists, and government create the greatest potential for transformative scale?”

    As you re-read that sentence, don’t you recognize that something is missing? Something really BIG? Only far and away the biggest force in our $75 trillion world economy?

    Don’t you realize that the greatest power to achieve scale in problem-solving is the profit motive? And that, much more readily than philanthropy or government, MISSION-DRIVEN BUSINESS is the most readily available solution for the world’s social, economic, and environmental challenges?

  • Jeff Bradach's avatar

    BY Jeff Bradach

    ON May 26, 2014 01:38 PM

    Mal - Good point and agree markets should be inlcuded.  Indeed, my co-author and I illuminate market pathways in http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/transformative_scale_the_future_of_growing_what_works)  The.re will be a few upcoming bloggers in this series focused on the power of market pathways for scale. Thanks.

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