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Heather Weiss

Several years ago I visited India and learned about Gyan Shala, a nonprofit start-up that developed an entrepreneurial low-cost model for providing high-quality education to poor children. It was fascinating to hear the story of how this model scaled up over time, starting first with local implementation at the elementary grades, moving next to middle school grades, and finally spreading nationally, as Gyan Shala worked with the government to integrate the model into the public education system. During my career, I have seen numerous examples of programs that were successful as research and demonstration efforts, but then died when they attempted to scale up. The experience of Gyan Shala made me want to take another look at what we know about successfully taking an effort to scale.

Scaling up involves sharing something that is effective (such as programs, practices, or ideas) so that more people can experience its benefits. When something works well, the natural inclination is to share it. The challenge becomes how to do so effectively—and that is where evaluation comes in.

This issue of The Evaluation Exchange explores the promising practices and challenges associated with taking an enterprise to scale, along with the role that evaluation can and should play in that process. It is the second in our “hard-to-measure” series, which we inaugurated with our Spring 2007 issue on evaluating advocacy.

Surprisingly few examples exist of nonprofit efforts that have scaled up and achieved lasting success. A program or approach may be strong and effective in one location, but that does not mean it will work the same way in another. Scaling is a complex process that plays out without a script. But we do know that when we take something to scale, we need to start with a clear sense of what is being scaled, why it is being scaled, how the process will work, and what it should look like in the end. This issue of The Evaluation Exchange helps readers think through some of those questions and options.

Several articles in the issue make it clear that evaluation is integral to the scaling process. At the beginning of a scaling effort, for example, evaluation can help determine whether something is ready to go to scale and which of its components should be scaled. This stage includes identifying and assessing the “ingredients” that must be in place to successfully scale.

In addition, this issue discusses how to evaluate an effort during the scaling process. Scaling takes place in developmental stages, and information needs differ over time. Evaluation questions and methods must recognize and assess those developmental stages accordingly.

Other articles consider the lessons that experienced programs and evaluators have learned about the scaling process. These lessons draw on successes and failures alike and are offered to help others navigate the process.

Finally, the issue addresses how to evaluate the different approaches that nonprofits use to take something to scale. Several options exist, each with different implications for evaluation.

We hope that this issue of The Evaluation Exchange contributes to the conversation about scale in the nonprofit sector and, in particular, reminds us of the important role that evaluation can play in its success.

Heather B. Weiss, Ed.D.
Founder & Director
Harvard Family Research Project

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Published by Harvard Family Research Project