High-impact. Growth capital. Impact investing. Scaling markets. Sounds like a segment from the Nightly Business Report, doesn’t it? Not quite. I don’t often participate in a learning experience that makes me feel as if I’ve sat through a semester of business school. But that’s how I felt at the recent Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact.

The purpose of the conference is simply to exchange ideas and knowledge on how to scale successful local, national, and international efforts. I attended the inaugural exchange last year and was struck again this year by the fascinating mix of philanthropies assembled. There were some of the usual suspects that lead venture philanthropy or social entrepreneurship movements. But I was again surprised-and heartened-by the interest among seemingly traditional philanthropies, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Bank of America, and American Express, who all prioritize in their giving a commitment to high-impact philanthropy. The conference brought together a cross-section of foundation and nonprofit leaders: individuals such as Joel Fleishman, Paul Brest, and Gara LaMarche alongside groups such as Teach for America, YearUp, RootCause, and College Summit.

So what does scaling mean? To me, scaling is about identifying effective solutions to social problems and helping expand or replicate them. This simple definition opens the door to a few complex, interconnected questions:

  • What does it mean to be effective? How is effectiveness measured or proven? What about nonprofits whose outcomes may take years-or generations-to bear out?
  • What characteristics of a scale-ready effort can really be replicated versus how much is tied to intangible factors like charismatic leadership?
  • What is the level of investment-financial and human- required to scale to a meaningful level? Can a movement like this one catalyze individuals to see themselves as social investors rather than charitable donors?

The conversations were lively, provocative and an impressive demonstration of how our collective sector is bringing its clever thinking to mobilize resources in different ways. I was left intrigued and reassured that philanthropy is asking tough questions to get at the best possible solutions.

Elizabeth Sullivan is the managing director of Corporate and Independent Services at the Council on Foundations.

2 Responses to Scaling Social Impact—Viewpoints from a Novice

Don floyd

July 7th, 2011 at 8:43 am

Would add a few more questions.
Why is innovation so much easier outside the US. Why don’t investors pay attention to serious research results that prove models work and do scale in organic ways.

James Posner

July 12th, 2011 at 9:51 am

I would like to add another word to the vocabulary of those pursuing “social impact” that suggests a different approach than “scaling.” In my conversations, I utilize the concept of “propagation” as the approach we take.

I do not care for the connotations of “replication” because it conveys a misleading sense of scientific experimentation or industrial franchises. My concept is that NGOs will be well served to gauge their success by “having lots of grandchildren…” The implication is that your experiences can be adapted into other settings and by other people. The succeeding generations may be influenced by your “DNA” but they will not look or act exactly like you.

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