Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Going to Scale, Part 1

(Note: This post comes directly from my new book Smart Stewardship for Nonprofits: Making the Right Decision in Good Times and Bad, to be released in February 2012 by John Wiley and Sons. You can pre-order at Amazon by clicking on the link. )

Can Your Mission Provision Methods Be Duplicated?

Think about nonprofits that are “everywhere:. To do that, think of the high-value nonprofit brands, ones like Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill Industries, Susan G. Komen, the YMCA, Girl Scouts, Ronald McDonald House. Why are they everywhere? Because they’re rich? Because they had unlimited resources?

No. These iconic nonprofits are everywhere because they have a very good, easily understandable core idea, one that motivates people to say “Hey, we should do that here”, COMBINED with a methodology that can be understood and then replicated with local customization, COMBINED with terrific national support and structure.

For example, what’s the core idea of a Goodwill Industries? The business model is to have people donate goods, sell them in an appealing retail location and use the profits to fund other jobs related programs. Formed in 1902 in Boston, Goodwills now work in every part of the United States and Canada as well as fifteen other nations.

How about the YMCA? Originally formed to provide safe, Christian housing for young men moving to large cities, the Y has spread and evolved with the times. Today, the mission is to strengthen the mind, body and spirit of the community. You might argue that the Y focuses mostly on the “body” part of that triad, but over 200 years, they’ve become an institution in the United States.

On a shorter timeline since its founding in 1967, so has Habitat for Humanity, based again, on simple, appealing replicable idea: use volunteers to work alongside the eventual owner to construct housing.
Ronald McDonald House? Let’s provide a place for the families of critically ill children to stay at no cost. Susan Komen? Let’s find a cure for breast cancer, a kind of cancer that affects nearly every family in the United States.

All simple, appealing ideas that are replicable locally.

Now, what about your scaling idea? If you really want to go to scale, if you really want to make a huge regional, national or global mission impact, heck, if you simply want to open four more branches in your local county, you have to have a simple, replicable idea that takes into account local needs, wants and cultures.

If you’re thinking about scaling up, how are you going to teach others how to do what you’ve done?

Will you write it down, put a series of videos on YouTube, develop a training program, how? Choose one or more, because you can’t be everywhere, and your top staff can’t all go off into the field and leave your current service area bereft of expertise.

So, the first question is this: Is our idea, our service truly replicable? Can it be done well by others the way we do it? Just because you can do your mission well, doesn’t mean others can. Just because you “get” what makes your nonprofit special, doesn’t mean the exact same thing will happen the exact same way elsewhere.

In fact, that’s the won’t. In every new community, in every new location, your mission provision, if it’s successful will have to adapt. More precisely, you’ll have to design a mission-replication system that is adaptable, that is flexible enough to accommodate needed modifications on the ground.

In my next post, we'll look at some models for scaling.

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