Whether you work at a small operating foundation or for the world’s largest grantmaking one, “scale” and “sustainability” are two words that likely have dominated more than a few staff meetings. That’s not surprising, since both are important indicators of an investment’s impact. But how do we decide whether something we fund is scalable and sustainable?
Five years ago, I ran the Chez Panisse Foundation, an organization in Berkeley, California, that helps young people connect what they eat to the health of their environment. Our goals for The Edible Schoolyard were ambitious: to redesign school lunch programs and create kitchen gardens in every school in America. The program’s founder, author and chef Alice Waters, built a model program that integrated academic curriculum with hands-on learning. Holding to very specific design principles, Waters carefully considered every detail, from the way children worked together in the garden, to how they cleaned up, to what they talked about while chopping vegetables. Today, there are only two official edible schoolyards, and the foundation (now called The Edible Schoolyard Project) continues to fund the original program at a Berkeley middle school.
Was our work a success or a failure?
It depends. If the goal of the Chez Panisse Foundation was to replicate the model “as is,” we failed utterly. But if our goal was to adopt, adapt, or even reinvent the model, our work was a wild success. The Edible Schoolyard created a movement that continues to grow. It has spawned thousands of kitchen gardens and inspired dozens of urban school districts to improve meals for their students. Today, all Berkeley public schools have kitchen-garden programs, and all students get freshly cooked meals with healthy local ingredients. In short, we transformed the system in one school district and created a model for the country.
Cynthia Coburn, a professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, has studied scale—the spreading of practices to greater numbers of people and organizations—and sustainability—the ability to maintain a change of practice over time. She says measuring a foundation’s success at scale depends on three simple questions whose answers may vary with projects and change over time:
- What are you trying to scale? (A program, framework, a set of design principles?)
- Who is your target audience, and what is the context for implementation and scale?
- What are you trying to make happen? (Do you seek adaptation, adoption, replication or reinvention?)
Common Approaches to Scale
At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are five years into a 15-year strategy to improve college readiness in K-12 education, and we are asking ourselves these same questions. We are committed to supporting innovations that work not just once or twice, but persistently—innovations that improve the lives of as many as possible for as long as possible. Since launching our strategy, we’ve become more deliberate about seeking solutions that travel well. It’s not an easy task. There are pockets of excellence in U.S. education, but they don’t spread as quickly as we would hope or survive as long as we would like.
As we work to overcome those problems, we have learned a lot about scale and sustainability. And we now know that if we are going to dramatically accelerate change in public schools, traditional approaches to scale and sustainability will no longer work.
Grantmakers typically take one of three approaches to scaling.
The first is to fund an initiative that works and then phase it into a growing number of sites. This strategy of “piloting to scale” makes sense; it’s usually wise to try something out before you take it on the road. Conditions can change in the process, however, and piloting takes time and limits investments to certain places.
The second strategy is to invest heavily to perfect an initiative in a few sites, then spread the lessons in the hope that others will follow. The Edible Schoolyard is a perfect example of this “proof-point” approach. The challenge is to be smart about replication and to be clear about what exactly is scalable. It’s also worth noting that when you put a site on a pedestal in this way, others can knock it off. (“Of course they were able to do that, given all the money they got!”) Or the initiative can simply fail, sinking its perceived value even if it had nothing to do with the site’s larger problems.
A third approach to scaling is to direct investments based on national, state, or district policies. We’ve seen again and again—through No Child Left Behind, teacher quality initiatives, and now Common Core State Standards—that the classic “policy play” can move large numbers of states and districts to action. Policy can often give funders their best chance at systems-level change, but if it lacks evidence of success or support for implementation, it doesn’t lead to sustainable scaling. It might even cause backlash.
A Fourth Path: Disciplined Design
What we’ve learned at the Gates Foundation is that achieving scale and sustainability often requires a fourth approach—one that I call “disciplined design.” You start with a conceptual framework, or a set of design principles, informed by practice and research. Then you support grantees as they apply these in a variety of cases, monitoring implementation to see what needs to be changed. Often, you discover a lever that markedly accelerates the work. Notably, this approach gives practitioners—in our case, teachers—a strong voice: the educators themselves recommend changes based on their experience, and you adjust the framework or build out those components that seem to stick.
Disciplined design requires research and evidence, but it also welcomes new ideas and unintended consequences. It allows for messiness, iteration, and deep inquiry into what exactly works and why. When funders take a disciplined design approach, they connect dots (partners, programs, problems) on multiple fronts and view individuals, systems, and networks as partners who are all critical to scale and sustainability. They accept that scale is not a linear process and that sustainability doesn’t happen by chance. Researcher Diana Laurillard, in her book on teaching and technology, says, “Teaching is a desig