Partnerships Enable Nonprofits to Scale Social Programs, Report Finds

Partnerships Enable Nonprofits to Scale Social Programs, Report Finds

Forming partnerships can be an effective way to expand the reach of social programs, with varying degrees of control and replication, a report commissioned by the Wallace Foundation finds.

Written by Diffusion Associates, the report, Strategies to Scale Up Social Programs: Pathways, Partnerships and Fidelity (105 pages, PDF), analyzed forty-five nonprofit organizations working to address issues ranging from the effects of climate change, to infant mortality, to illiteracy, to hunger and homelessness, all of which expanded their reach through partnerships. Each organization faced three strategic choices — how to structure the partnerships, with whom to partner, and how to address the fidelity of implementation.

According to the study, the nonprofits took one of three pathways to scale their programs through partnerships — branching pathways, in which a lead organization developed, distributed, provided capital for, and implemented the program; affiliate pathways, in which affiliate organizations licensed the lead group’s program using their own resources; and distribution network pathways, in which the lead group worked with a partner organization to reach the latter’s members, who have the option of modifying the program. While branching allowed for the greatest control, it also took the most time, while distribution networks allowed for the least control but the fastest scale-up.

The report also found that many social program leaders planned to change their pathways or used multiple pathways simultaneously, and that branching may be a preliminary option allowing a lead organization to test a program under somewhat controlled circumstances. In addition, the study found that newer organizations scaling rapidly tended to use distribution network pathways, possibly as part of a new way of thinking about partnerships and collaboration that has been promoted in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector.

"Without a doubt, scale up of social programs in the United States is occurring in education, youth development, and health, and the phenomenon is real," said lead author R. Sam Larson. "These are real success stories that show how social entrepreneurs and a variety of organizations can work together to effect change. To our knowledge, no other study has assessed a larger number of effective programs that have successfully scaled up, and we believe these lessons may help other organizations trying to do that."