Guest Post: Grantmakers Need to Focus on Growing Impact, Not Size

Thursday, November 11, 2010

KathleenEnright2006b Innovation and scale are key themes in several high-profile federal initiatives, including the Social Innovation Fund and the Promise Neighborhoods program, and even in Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark public schools. These efforts respond to a growing feeling that current approaches to improve health, education, and economic opportunities are not having the desired impact. Government, private and individual funders alike have a keen interest in identifying and growing the impact of successful community-based solutions.

The focus on innovation and scale has been met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Some of the nonprofit sector’s greatest champions and most thoughtful leaders have voiced concern this is just the latest fad, that it doesn’t appropriately build on what we know works, and that it is an insider-only conversation with little relevance to the broader field. When innovation and scale are framed as ends in and of themselves, these criticisms are entirely valid. But when scale and innovation are exclusively in service of growing the impact of important programs, these criticisms fall away.

Insights generated by members of the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ community suggest we need to frame the conversation in some new ways, including:

  1. Bigger is not always better: Many think of scale exclusively in terms of bigger organizations and programs replicated in more sites. These are important approaches, but not the only ones. The most important thing to scale is not the size of an organization, but the results it achieves. Scaling impact is about leveraging resources and relationships to achieve better results, namely significant and sustained benefit for people and communities.
  2. Innovation and impact are not synonymous: Innovation is primarily important in so far as it enables an expansion of social impact.  While fostering innovation can lead to new breakthroughs, we must recognize that impact can grow by appropriately resourcing ideas that have been around for years.
  3. Waiting for Superman can be your kryptonite: Leadership is a key ingredient for all efforts to grow impact. Yet the type of leadership the most effective social entrepreneurs are now exhibiting is a collective, facilitative and networked approach. Both individual and institutional donors can grow impact by supporting those organizations that are built to far outlast their founders. 
  4. Funders can do harm: When funding nonprofit solutions, we must ensure our investments are not structured in a way that is harmful to those we intend to help. Funders can be sure to “do no harm” by weeding out inefficiencies in the grants process; picking partners well; providing significant, ongoing, flexible funding; and remembering that growing impact at any scale will take time. Additionally, funders are wise to steer clear of trying to be the sole architects of social solutions and instead trust the instincts and ideas of the high-performing nonprofits and other stakeholders that are closest to the problems we hope to solve.

For more information on GEO and Scaling What Works, visit

~ Kathleen Enright, president and CEO, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations