by Caylin Viales
“Importing” nonprofit organizations can be a tricky thing to talk about.
In fact, I don’t even really like using the word “importing” to describe nonprofit scale. It evokes a mental picture of a cargo ship stacked with hundreds of identical shipping containers full of indistinguishable goods and materials – which is not the imagery I want to be in your head when we are talking about the strategic, pointed replication of proven nonprofits. It’s too easy to assume defensive positions:
“We have organizations that could do that here.”
“That won’t work in our community.”
“Why are we creating even more competition for our already limited funding sources?”
“Weren’t you guys just talking about how there are too many nonprofits in Charlotte?”
Those are good questions, but they miss the point. When Charlotte lacks an effective solution to a pressing community need, we have a few options. Well-meaning residents could go out and start multiple new grassroots programs. An established organization could try to develop a new program that addresses the issue. A blue-ribbon panel could be formed to study the best practices in addressing this type of community need. Or, we could look at proven solutions cultivated in other communities, adapting and replicating either the organization or the program locally to achieve similar results.
I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with any of the four options. But I think the last one, when executed well, holds the most potential for success. The challenge is that, unlike commercial markets, there is no automatic growth mechanism to help successful nonprofit organizations scale, and current funding models are inefficient and ineffective at bubbling up top performers. Consequently, it can be extremely difficult to identify and scale the best social innovations and proven nonprofit programs.
Full disclosure: before I moved to Charlotte, I spent the majority of my early career working with the GreenLight Fund, a philanthropic organization that does exactly this. GreenLight selects national nonprofit organizations with proven solutions and helps them scale their programs to the cities that need them most. The model builds community demand for these proven programs, alleviating the many roadblocks national organizations face when trying to expand to new markets while building the local partnerships necessary for long-term success. (More full disclosure: GreenLight announced in May 2017 that it is launching a site in Charlotte.)
Because my role focused on researching and assessing organizations from across the country, I know for a fact that there are brilliant nonprofits implementing effective and entrepreneurial programs in other communities that could make a huge difference in Charlotte, if only they could find a way to get here.
But far too often, our time and resources are directed toward recreating the wheel instead of developing the capacity and growing the reach of organizations that have already proven their impact elsewhere, or conversely, local organizations that are prepared for and deserving of regional or national scale.
So, the question is: how do we, as a community, identify which nonprofits could address our most pressing needs, and how do we evaluate which of those organizations have the capacity and infrastructure needed for success in our city? Perhaps even more important: How do we ensure these organizations find long-term sustainability in our community – even when they are no longer the new, shiny penny that Charlotte loves to love?
The Imported Organization
As Josh and I have deepened our discussions about the Community Social Impact Portfolio, I have become somewhat of an advocate within our firm for the imported organization and its vital role in the community. By leveraging established national infrastructure, developing and implementing proven programs and (often) unlocking national philanthropic dollars, these organizations fill important gaps in a region’s nonprofit sector.
In my experience, I have found that imported nonprofits can actually strengthen the work of emerging, niche and blue-chip organizations through both formal and informal collaborations that encourage capacity building activities in leadership development, program fidelity, data collection and evaluation.
There are some great examples of imported organizations already operating in Charlotte, including: Nurse-Family Partnership (managed by Care Ring), Reach Out and Read (in partnership with Read Charlotte), and Reading Partners (launched in early 2016). Each of these programs have a robust evidence base demonstrating long-term impacts and strong partnerships with local nonprofits and/or Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and they address known local needs in health and early literacy.
In addition to supporting imported models like the three cited above, though, we must begin think strategically about how we can help our most promising social entrepreneurs, emerging organizations and niche organizations create strong business models that can one day support scale beyond Charlotte. As we build infrastructure that embraces proven programs from other communities, we are also creating pathways for our own homegrown organizations to someday navigate those complex replication strategies and actualize their own ambitions for scale.
As Charlotte continues to grapple with increasingly complex social and economic issues through initiatives like Leading on Opportunity and Read Charlotte, there will be many opportunities to both embrace proven strategies from other communities and grow our own best-in-class organizations to strengthen our sector and move our city forward.
The Checklist: Imported Organizations
The nonprofit sector, nationally, is becoming more and more entrepreneurial and growth-focused. It is up to us, as stewards of our community’s nonprofits, to create the local infrastructure necessary to evaluate opportunities to import and sustain proven models, while avoiding potential program duplication and excessive competition for funding. It is also up to us to support our local organizations as they work toward achieving their own growth aspirations.
Next Stage believes that imported organizations (and local nonprofits that hope to scale to new communities) must build a strong organizational and programmatic foundation before exploring growth opportunities. Replication is challenging and requires financial stability, program fidelity, significant resources and deep commitment – and organizations should be carefully evaluated for capacity for long-term success. Donors seeking to support organizations that bring proven solutions from other communities can use the following criteria for evaluating the long-term sustainability and impact of an imported nonprofit:
- Differentiated Model that Meets a Local Need: Next Stage believes market research is a core component of any planning process, and is uniquely significant for organizations considering launching sites in new communities. Imported organizations must be engaged in consistent local landscape analyses and needs assessments, making sure their programs are aligned with community needs. Programs should also be clearly differentiated from anything in the local market, avoiding duplication or excessive competition with other established organizations.
- Demonstrated Impact and Robust Evidence Base: Organizations should establish a base of evidence through constant data collection, longitudinal output and outcome tracking, and internal and external evaluations. This evidence should support a well-developed logic model that speaks to the intended impacts of the organization’s different programs. Ideally, an organization would report similar results across multiple sites, indicating fidelity to the model.
- Locally-Informed Programming and Partnerships: Imported organizations cannot enter new communities and maintain long-term impact and sustainability in isolation. As shown in the examples referenced above, many imported organizations form partnerships with local nonprofits to quickly access target populations and benefit from positive brand association. Organizations should also be responsive to community needs and cultural differences in program implementation, ensuring that all programs are locally-informed.
- Capacity and Infrastructure that Supports Scale: National organizations that are actively growing must develop a comprehensive plan that allows them to develop the systems and human and financial resources to continue to scale while maintaining financial stability. Policies and procedures should be standardized across sites, and there should be protocol in place for succession planning, new site development and scaling culture and decision-making practices. Data management infrastructure including collaboration, file management, program data collection and customer relationship management should be functional and actively used.
- Sustainable Business Model with Diverse Revenue Streams: To ensure long-term financial sustainability, imported nonprofits should have a revenue model that utilizes earned revenue streams (e.g. fee-for-service programs), receives significant funding from private and/or public partners, and leverages new philanthropic dollars through national funding relationships.
When replicated thoughtfully, we believe that imported organizations can successfully fill gaps, address local needs and support the work of existing local organizations. These five criteria create a suggested framework for assessing imported organizations and evaluating their potential for long-term impact. Do you agree?
Caylin Viales is Project Development Manager for Next Stage Consulting. Before relocating to Charlotte, Caylin worked as a Program Associate with the GreenLight Fund, a philanthropic organization with roots in the venture capital community. Over a three-year tenure, she supported the selection and launch of five high-performing national organizations in Philadelphia. Prior to GreenLight, Caylin spent six months as a fellow at the national consulting firm Frontline Solutions, working with the Philadelphia office in their efforts to enhance the impact of nonprofit and public sector programs.
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