While nonprofits see growing interest among private foundations and government agencies in scaling up successful social programs, there has been little empirical literature on how to pull off these expansions. This study of 45 social programs that work takes perhaps the broadest look yet at efforts that were able to extend their reach through partnerships, and it finds some common patterns among them.
The selected programs came with evidence of effectiveness and could demonstrate success in scaling up. Researchers also focused on nonprofits that chose to work with partners, so the goal was not a representative sample of all social programs that have sought to scale up. The areas the efforts worked in spanned education, youth development and health, and projects were as varied as safe playgrounds, food kitchens, and job placement for former prisoners.
Those behind the 45 scale-ups—the “lead partners”—shared three fundamental decisions: which expansion approach (or, pathway) to take, what partners to choose, and how much fidelity to the program model to demand.
On pathways, the focus was on a trio of types, and the choices went hand in hand with the decision on which partner to work with:
Branching pathways, which are similar to businesses opening branch sites as extensions of the central office. The choice typically means slower growth, because much responsibility remains centralized with the lead partner, but it offers a high level of control in delivery.
- Affiliate pathways, which are more like franchises, with basic controls remaining with the lead partner; affiliate partners are independent organizations, often operating under contracts.
- Distribution network pathways, similar to supply chain business arrangements, where the lead partner provides the content (the “product”) and the network partners handle the distribution. Network partners typically were regional or national organizations with wide reach in membership, such as the YMCA of the USA and AARP.
The third major decision involved the lead partner’s position on fidelity. Some looked for complete adherence to their program models; others saw an advantage to letting their partners customize elements to meet local needs and preferences. The aim was often to balance fidelity in the pursuit of quality and flexibility to address issues such as affordability and audience variety.
The report emphasizes that the scale-ups were a work in progress, partly as partners assessed their successes and kept up with changing social and funding circumstances.