The figure, put out by Bridgespan and popularized by the Stanford Social Innovation Review some years back, deserves repeating: Since 1970, fewer that 150 nonprofits have grown past $50 million in annual revenue (while 65,000 for-profits have).
This is the challenge at the core of the social sector: We’ve got great programs and promising solutions out there, but so few are reaching the necessary scale. For example, of the tens—hundreds?—of thousands of education support programs, why have so few, grown big enough, like the Harlem Children’s Zone?
Funders have long recognized this and have been pursuing “capacity building” for decades.
But there’s not much consensus on what “capacity” means. And there's even less agreement on what works. Making matters worse, the writing I’ve seen on this essential topic is so dry, lengthy and abstract, it’s pretty much impossible to figure out the key takeaways for executives and boards struggling to fund and grow their programs.
So here’s what I’m looking for: Examples in which a funder has made smart, targeted investments in a charity’s infrastructure that has successfully catalyzed program growth—the type of program growth we need if we are going to tackle the enormous challenges before us.
They are out there. They need a big, bright spotlight. And clear, no-nonsense analysis, so we can truly understand the core elements of what works.
So I propose to use this space to kick off a dialogue. A dialogue of discovery and debate, a happy celebration of what really works. Maybe we can actually help some small, promising nonprofits find their ways to sustainability and scale.
There are funders out there doing the unsexy but desperately needed work of helping nonprofits get to scale. I’ve come across a few terrific ones and will be profiling them in future posts. And if anyone can point to some good examples of their own, I’d love to hear about them.