I’m attending a two-day course called Scaling for Social Impact, put on by the Nonprofit Management Institute of Stanford University. Scaling your ministry is all about getting a massive boost in results with the greatest leverage of your resources. That means you tap in to resources that are outside of your ministry, and that means that your ministry does not grow anywhere nearly as fast as your mission impact does.

And that raises an interesting question: Which is more important – growing your ministry or growing your impact? The first is internally focused while the second is externally focused. If your goal is to grow a large ministry because you want to lead a large ministry, I’d suggest you take a hard look at your motivation.

  • If you could achieve much greater mission impact but with no growth and even less visibility than you have today, would you do it?
  • Is leadership driving you or is your mission driving you?

Here’s what I learned on Day One.

Achieving Transformative Scale

Jeff Bradach of The Bridgespan Group gave us nine pathways to scaling up for impact.

  1. Distribute through existing platforms. You don’t have to build everything yourself. Many other organizations have developed assets you can use to get your messages and programs out in public. Think about cooperation and collaboration. Or at least think about using them as a supplier.
  2. Recruit and train other organizations. This goes beyond simply using someone else’s platform. Here you actually give them a packaged program that they can then run (and even adapt) themselves.
  3. Unbundle and scale for impact. Perhaps it is too challenging to think about scaling up everything you do. Why not take a complex program and break it down into pieces that are easier to scale? Scaling a small thing is better than not scaling at all.
  4. Leverage technology. Research shows that for profit companies spend double the amount on technology than what nonprofits do. Social media, apps and other technologies can greatly broaden your audience.
  5. Strengthen the field. Find ways to lift the performance of all the players in your field. What can you do that would enable others who are working on the same mission (or closely related aspects of it) to do better? For example, could you develop shared measurements of mission performance? That way, everyone can try their own methods, but have a basis for comparing results and seeing what works best.
  6. Examine the ‘system’ you are all working within. Could you change a critical part of it so that everyone wins? Jeff said that bad systems trump good programs every time! Change the system and maybe your programs will work better.
  7. Influence policy change and you’ll change the playing field.
  8. Consider for profit models. If you can, minimize your reliance on donations and grants. A good example is the micro-credit sector that has become a viable, standalone business.
  9. Change the attitudes, behaviours and norms that work against mission success. Are there negative communal habits that should be changed? Smoking and drunk driving are two examples where bad habits became socially unacceptable.

Jeff reminded us of a few important strategies not to forget while scaling up:

  • Keep replicating what’s working. Don’t just do new things.
  • Cost matters. Innovate to drive costs down (but not at the cost of effectiveness)
  • Money matters. You need large capital for new capabilities, so rethink your funding model and see where you could generate additional revenue
  • Constituent engagement matters. Sometimes we rely on experts instead of grassroots wisdom. Instead of either/or, think both/and

 Building networks and movements for social impact

Heather McLeod Grant of Open Impact said that the best nonprofits work outside of themselves, engaging business, government and other nonprofits with their cause. Here’s her definition of scaling:

Scaling is a leader building an organization that can build a network to grow a movement.

NFPs (Not For Profits) often stifle movements by saying “Here’s all that could go wrong.” If we don’t support movements of creativity, we will be sidelined as irrelevant organizations.

Design Thinking and Rapid Innovation

David Viotti, CEO of Smallify, talked about how to attack a really big goal. To smallify something is to get to the root cause of a challenge and then take quick action. It is to break something down to a small piece that can be worked on.

To smallify is to make small bets with relatively low risk and an affordable loss if it doesn’t work out. The attitude needs to be, “What can we do this Monday?” Do something, anything, NOW!!

Viotti gave five tools for rapid innovation:

  1. Experiment more and fear less. Don’t wait for the perfect idea, just start testing and don’t be afraid it might go wrong. You’ll learn something and move forward.
  2. Empathize and show up. Approach the challenge from other perspectives. Talk to people and discover what they think about. Be an actor – do something – and not just an observer.
  3. Generate and say “Yes”. Be creative and be open to trying new things out. Think of options. “How could we…” is a great question.
  4. When you are up against constraints, take them as gifts. They force you to be more creative, and that’s always good.
  5. Your mindset is a choice. Do you believe that intelligence is fixed? If you do, then you will give up more easily and achieve less. If you believe that intelligence grows, then you will embrace challenge and achieve more. Choose to believe that intelligence grows. Every time you try something, you learn something, and then you are closer to achieving your goal.

Viotti taught us “the innovator’s bow.” Say “I am [name] and I have failed.” Then take a bow. Well done! You did something even if it didn’t work. That’s better than sitting around and doing nothing.

He also warned us that people who say, “Let me play the Devil’s advocate” are really saying, “Let me kill your idea!” Turn the “Yes but” answers to “Yes and”. Ask “So how can we do it?”

Scaling up Excellence

Bob Sutton of Stanford University said that when you have a pocket of excellence, the challenge is how to spread excellence from the few to the many without “screwing it up.”

Scaling isn’t just about the numbers, numerical growth and so forth. It really is about spreading a mindset – getting people to get on board with a new way of getting real world impact. Organizations that spread excellence have people who feel they own the organization, and the organization owns them. They share a mutual accountability for each person living up to the ideal and getting the job done well.

Scaling isn’t about getting more resources to do more. It’s about doing more with less. You start by cutting out all the ineffective things – those things you do only because everyone else does them.

Scaling is about getting others to help you accomplish your mission. That means that you will have to address the issue of whether you will enforce a cookie-cutter approach or allow for local variation on a theme. Allowing variation may encourage better employee engagement or it might lead to delusions of uniqueness. Some people want to change a program just so that they have exercised some control over it. Variation because of real variations in the local areas are quite okay, but don’t let people reinvent what doesn’t need to be reinvented.

How to Spread Excellence

  • Start by firing up contagious emotions first. Trying to enlist people by making a rational case for their work just doesn’t work. Get their emotions in high gear over your cause!
  • Then guide people to do the desired tangible behaviours. Get them active, doing what needs to be done right away. Research shows that strong beliefs are created and maintained based on what we do, not what we are told or what we say. Action builds commitment to the mission. Leaders need to live the mindset they want staff and volunteers to have, not just talk about it. Excessive talk and thinking keeps us from doing what we know and believe we should do.
  • As organizations get larger, you need more structure and process. Many people think this means having a bureaucracy, but the purpose of hierarchy is to defeat bureaucracy and organize people to work together effectively.
  • Keep teams small. Once a team gets to about six people, it starts to have problems. If it has more than ten members, the system gets clogged.
  • Cascade excellence by putting people with the right mindset in positions to influence those who don’t.
  • Start with a small team of diverse people, so when they go back to their own diverse groups, ideas will spread faster.
  • When it comes to attitudes and performance, bad is stronger than good. Bob says “one jerk cuts performance by 40%,” so get rid of the bad fast!
  • When you can say “We don’t have time to do it the way we should,” you are doing great scaling. The point isn’t to wait for perfect conditions and processes, but to do something now and make progress. However, balance this by remembering that sometimes the best advice is just to stand there and do nothing but think about it. You’ll have to decide when stopping to reflect is the right thing to do.
  • There will be times when scaling will not be enjoyable. The staff may start to lose their happiness about working on the mission. Disney knows that its guests are least happy when they are actually in the park. Anticipating and remembering the park experience are when they are happiest. That’s why Disney makes sure you know where the best places are to take pictures and why they provide photo ops with their characters. When your staff is unhappy, talk up both the past and the future. We are going from somewhere to somewhere. Let’s remember the progress already made and anticipate achieving the vision.
  • Scaling up is a manageable mess. It isn’t neat and tidy. So clean up the best you can and keep muddling forward!

I highly recommend Bob’s book: Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling For Less.

That’s it for the first day.

God bless!

Series NavigationStanford Day 2 – Scaling Nonprofits >>

Thoughts on At Stanford University: Scaling Nonprofits

  1. Burkhard Wilke

    Great Message, John! I’ve shared it with my colleagues at DZI.

    Best wishes for “Day 2”.
    Regards from Berlin!


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