Chapel of the Holy Grail, Valencia.”

Sometimes, when one reads the phrase “getting to scale,” it feels a little bit like the nonprofit equivalent of reaching for the Holy Grail. Back in 2011, Casey Family Programs even titled one of their reports, “Getting to Scale: The Elusive Goal.”

The Wallace Foundation’s latest report, “Strategies to Scale Up Social Programs: Pathways, Partnerships and Fidelity,” is the latest entry in what the Wallace Foundation itself calls the “field of scale-up studies.” And they are not kidding! Just two weeks ago, another foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors—working in partnership with the Skoll, Draper Richards Kaplan, Ford, and Porticus Foundations—released its report on scaling, titled “Scaling Solutions Toward Shifting Systems.” Interestingly, the preface of the Wallace report echoes Rockefeller’s title, declaring, “Scaling what works is a crucial component of systems change.”

The Wallace Foundation, which derives its corpus from donations by De Witt and Lila Acheson Wallace, founders of Reader’s Digest, has over $1.5 billion in assets and concentrates its grants on support for education, youth development, and the arts, with a focus on helping disadvantaged children in U.S. urban areas. Their report—authored by two Michigan State faculty, assistant dean R. Sam Larson and communications department chair James Dearing, along with the longtime former president of the nonprofit Human Interaction Research Institute, Thomas Backer—analyzes the efforts of 45 nonprofits to rapidly expand operations in three fields: education (10 nonprofits), health (18 nonprofits), and youth development (17 nonprofits).

The report defines scaling as “a process for significantly increasing the number of sustained implementations of a successful program, thereby serving more people with comparable benefits.” In terms of the report’s organization, however, the authors’ focus is on whether the mechanism used involved branching (i.e., a single organization, with multiple “chapters”), franchising (i.e., with “affiliates”), or a distribution model where the nonprofit partners with a larger organization to speed program diffusion. According to the report, of the 45 nonprofits they selected, 12 used the branching approach, 20 used the franchising (or affiliation) approach, and 13 used the strategic partnership (or distribution) approach.

Regardless of approach, critical choices need to be made in terms of selecting partners; even if you use a chapter model, you can’t do everything yourself, and you need to make important decisions about how much faithfulness (or “fidelity” in the report’s language) you need to maintain versus how much to permit or even encourage adaptability to local conditions.

So: what does the report have to say that might inform future practice? And what questions does the “field of scale up studies” answer and fail to answer?

First, some of the main findings of the report itself:


Literally 10 out of 10 of the featured nonprofits in the education sector used the branching approach. Hardly anyone else did. Even the nonprofits listed as being in the other two sectors provide education and training of a sort, as the Center for Employment Opportunities trains formerly incarcerated individuals for employment while Earth Force Process has a curriculum to encourage youth participation in environmental service projects. The authors note that scaling for organizations using this approach usually dated about 10–12 years after the nonprofit formed and that all of the organizations were practitioner, not research, based.


Franchising or affiliation, the authors point out, is an approach that allows for greater local adaptation and ownership of the initiative. For example, Interise is the nonprofit national training center for the StreetWise MBA, but Interise encourages licensees to apply their own names to the StreetWise program. This effectively allows each locality to brand the initiative as their own. “Because we subordinate our brand and support theirs locally,” CEO Jean Horstman said to the report authors, “they are keen to deliver StreetWise MBA to our standards.”

With the franchise model, as with branching, the average scale-up time is similar—typically occurring on average 11–12 years after the nonprofit is founded. However, a quarter (5 of 20) of the case studies took less than five years to scale up, suggesting that franchising can sometimes speed diffusion.

What is meant by scaling can vary. Report authors note that eight of the 20 operated their program at 11–50 sites, but seven operated their programs at over 500 sites. For example, by shifting from in-house to partnering with local neighborhood groups, the nonprofit neighborhood playground builder KABOOM! was able to get 1,600 playgrounds opened in 2009—nearly as many as had been built in the previous 14 years of the organization’s existence.


As might be expected, the fastest model for diffusion is the strategic partnership or distribution model. As the authors noted, 10 of the 13 programs they studied took less than 10 years to scale up. For example, Money Matters, operated by the Charles Schwab Foundation, provides a financial education curriculum for youth. The program “was piloted in 20 Boys & Girls Clubs locations in 2003, then distributed to all teen-serving Clubs in 2004. Since the program’s inception, more than 725,000 teens have completed Money Matters at over 1,700 Clubs.”

“In 2015 alone,” the report adds, “some 85,000 teenagers completed the program.”

Although not the case with Money Matters, in a number of the nonprofits profiled, the report notes, programs that used this diffusion model were initially formed by university-based research institutes. Research institutes, of course, often are more interested in spreading knowledge than running a national organization. For example, the Climate Matters program, which provides “video segments that weathercasters can freely use to add science-based content about climate change to their daily television segments,” was launched by a research institute at George Mason University. It now distributes the program it developed through two partner organizations, the American Meteorological Association and the National Weather Association.

The authors spend considerable time discussing the challenges of “reinvention” (altering the program in advance of expansion, so that it is suitable to be scaled) and “adaptation” (alterations made to the program after scaling), the variability in how much freedom local adapters have to make changes on their own, and the tensions that result from balancing the imperatives of fidelity to core principles and suitability to local conditions. The report also discusses in depth the different types of partners (e.g., lead, supporting, and implementing partners) and how funding shifts over time. Typically, while starting up may depend on a single champion funder, with scaling comes a greater diversity of foundations and more types of funding, which can sometimes include government support or fee-for-service income. In short, for a nonprofit organization looking at how to radically increase the number of people it serves, this report offers a lot to chew on.

At the same time, in other ways, the report can be frustrating. For example, the authors acknowledge one of the study’s limitations: “We did not set out to assess the effectiveness of each program.” Evaluating 45 programs, of course, would require a completely separate publication, but it still would have been helpful to be able to say something significant not just about how nonprofits sought to maintain organizational fidelity (on which the authors write quite a lot) but whether or not quality was maintained as quantity skyrocketed, and how effectively.

A larger challenge—well beyond the scope of the study, but vital to field—is the system change question. As the authors note, there has been some progress, at least, away from the “great person” vision of the past.

In the past, social entrepreneurs were portrayed as “solo operators, pursuing their agenda quixotically with little support from others. Today, this assessment has changed and it is generally accepted that successful social entrepreneurs are masters at mobilizing alliances of groups and individuals to all work together for a cause.”

Certainly, it is better to look at nonprofits as operating within networks rather than solely focusing on heroic individuals. But a broader question is whether it is fair or appropriate to label a nonprofit that engages in program diffusion as achieving “system change.” After all, the nature of the problems that are the focus of the 45 organizations studied involves health, education, and youth development—things that might be considered core public functions. Yet with modest exceptions, the only case of the 45 studied to become a widespread policy change is the Housing First approach, which began as a program by the nonprofit Pathways to Housing in New York City in 1992 but has since been adopted by many U.S. cities and in 2014 was adopted by Canada as their national policy to end homelessness.

Clearly, the boundary line between public sector and nonprofit sector is not fixed. Certainly, the trend in recent years has been for nonprofits to fill the gap created by government retrenchment. In part, as a result, the number of nonprofit programs that have reached significant scale has grown. But is our sector plugging the holes or engaging in system change? Without looking at whether the indicators of health, education, and youth development are improving and for whom, it is impossible to say.—Steve Dubb