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Peter Frumkin of the University of Texas at Austin describes the five primary ways in which funders define scale as it relates to nonprofits’ efforts to create a lasting and significant impact.

For nonprofit organizations, being effective means more than simply carrying out an initiative successfully and meeting the needs of a small group of people. Effectiveness also involves reaching many people—taking the social leverage that an intervention creates and amplifying it even more broadly. From a philanthropic perspective, scale means investing in programs and initiatives run by nonprofit organizations that are able to create a lasting and significant impact. Donors speak variously of “taking a program to scale,” “going to scale,” and “scaling up.” No matter how they refer to it, foundations define a nonprofit organization’s ability to go to scale using five dimensions: financial strength, program expansion, comprehensiveness, multisite replication, and accepted doctrine.

Financial strength refers to a nonprofit’s organizational strength and sustainability, often secured by endowment or operating budgets with dependable revenue streams. In a sector in which financial crises are commonplace, scale means being able to ride out the storms. Nonprofits that have gone to scale under this definition remain few; those that have are concentrated in categories of nonprofits such as museums and universities.

Program expansion describes the scope of service, usually measured by the number of clients served. When a program demonstrates positive outcomes for its participants, the goal is often to provide more funding and bring it to more people. To a funder, enabling an organization with a proven track record to expand its operations represents a high-return, low-risk activity.

As soon as an initiative seems to achieve significant results, one of the first impulses of nonprofit managers and funders alike is to ramp up the effort and find a way to identify and serve more clients. Their ultimate ambition is often to secure local, state, or federal funding after the initiative launches with private money.

Comprehensiveness refers to programs that constitute a coherent set of resources for clients or communities, brought together under one roof to provide an integrated group of activities. This configuration mitigates the coordination problems inherent in the nonprofit sector’s division of labor and ability to proliferate. Seeking to create synergies by funding a collection of services, many donors perceive scale as being closely linked to building a sizable local presence and thus having a more fundamental and lasting impact to achieve systemwide reform.

Multisite replication refers to attempts to dissect the essential elements of a successful initiative or service model in order to reconstruct the effort elsewhere with different personnel and under different circumstances. Replication can proceed in two ways: (1) within the organization, through a set of chapters or a franchise system linking independent organizations; or (2) outside the organization, through independent efforts to create similar programs. Although funders may be able to foster some replication through the use of grants and incentives, most externally directed replication efforts will struggle with the vast, unruly, and idiosyncratic tide of nonprofit organizations that resist imitation and convergence. Some innovations and ideas have been replicated, but large numbers of projects are unable to find any takers, even when they have shown great promise. Replication may rest on the shaky assumption that nonprofits are amenable to cookie-cutter duplication.

Accepted doctrine focuses on the power of formulating and diffusing a new and accepted doctrine within a given field. Creating a new doctrine is different from other forms of scale because it seeks to change the conceptual and intellectual frame surrounding a particular field. A successful effort at doctrine building brings about a major shift in a field by changing the ways in which people think about their work and carry out their programs; it creates a wide-ranging and lasting impact by leading to a wholesale reevaluation of a field’s standard operating procedures and assumptions.

Achieving scale raises a number of questions: When and why should these scale strategies be applied? Why does scale sometimes fail? Does the ideal of scale fit the business sector better than the nonprofit sector? Can commitments to scale and equity be embraced simultaneously? Are less successful attempts at scale simply examples of domains in which public policy should be allowed to operate?

Most of these questions remain unanswered even though scale has become a major target of philanthropy. Rather than engage these difficult questions, it is far easier to simply fall back on arguments about spreading an initiative’s benefits more broadly and achieving efficiencies.

Related Resources

The definitions of scale discussed in this article are presented in greater detail on the Social Edge blog at: and in Frumkin, P. (2006). The art and science of philanthropy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The fundamental problem with the concept of scale, as understood in philanthropy, is the assumption that the scope of public impact correlates with the public value created. Scale seems an obviously desirable objective by virtue of simple math: Assisting 10,000 clients seems better than assisting 1,000. This assumption is particularly hard to defeat because it is notoriously difficult to measure the quality of nonprofit programs, whereas it is easy to use number served as a proxy for impact. Strategic giving requires a nuanced and guarded stance with regard to scale, one that is grounded in a clear understanding of the many meanings—and limits—of scale.

Peter Frumkin
Professor of Public Affairs and Director
RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
The University of Texas at Austin

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