Scaling What Works

In the philanthropy and non-profit worlds, financial support for organizations in the recent past came with stipulations to demonstrate growth by "scaling up," or growing the size of a program or organization. Seeking to understand what kinds of scale and impact actually work in increasing impact in our communities, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) launched the Scaling What Works initiative in 2010, in the hopes of broadening the conversation. After three years, GEO has released its report and calls for grantmakers and organizations to redefine scale.

GEO found throughout it's study that "growth" can mean many things, and often times, the emphasis on growth through increasing the size of programs/organizations can be harmful rather than helpful. Instead, GEO encourages those in philanthropy and non-profits to redefine scale: "growth is not only about growing the size of a program or organization, but it's about leveraging resources and relationships to achieve better results." Crucially, growth must include the end goal of significant and sustained benefit for people and communities, not just an increase in number of programs from an organization.

What is missing, GEO argues, is a shared understanding among nonprofits, grantmakers, and government and corporate partners of the varying approaches to growing impact successfully, and a shared vocabulary of the different things "growth" and "impact" can mean. Furthermore, the GEO report highlights that it is imperative for all partners involved to acknowledge that innovation and impact are not the same: innovation for its own sake is not the goal, instead, innovation is only important insofar as it enables social impact on a broader scale.

The GEO report states: "In the past, the questions enterprising nonprofits struggled with may have been What's our growth strategy? How many cities can we be located in five years from now? Today the questions are shifting to: How can we amplify others' efforts to advance our ultimate goal? What policymakers do we need to engage with to be successful in the broader social change we seek?" Crucially, GEO reminds grantmakers that philanthropy can do harm by insisting on unrealistic deadlines for results-oriented work. Instead, grantmakers must develop a new conversation focused on a broader understanding of growth, impact, and social good.