"Scaling Up" in a Time of Scarcity: Some Experiences, Observations, and Caveats (Part III)

July 1, 2011

This is Part III of a speech delivered by Gara LaMarche before participants at the second annual Conference on Scaling Impact, hosted by the Social Impact Exchange. You can read Part I here and Part II here. A PDF of the full speech is available here.
 
So let me return to the questions I laid out toward the outset of this talk. How can we talk of scaling up at a time when governments everywhere have less money, and the risk capital that foundations are usually well situated to provide might demonstrate an impact that no one will be in a position to multiply, like the proverbial tree that falls in the empty forest that no one hears? I’ve been worried about this, particularly since Atlantic’s successes through our Elev8 middle schools initiative are premised on the notion that city, state, and federal funding will follow, and every jurisdiction in which we operate the program faces severe budget shortfalls. It’s much worse in Ireland, where when I came to Atlantic nearly five years ago the Celtic Tiger was roaring and we had every good reason to expect that the gains our grantees were demonstrating through “regeneration” projects in distressed communities like Ballymun or Limerick would be taken up by government ministries who were watching our work with interest and care.
But a funny thing has happened as the money got tight. In the U.S. the design of our Elev8 program—or rather its redesign in the few years since Atlantic adopted a social justice framework for our funding—emphasizes the centrality of community voice and empowerment to meaningful change. And to the extent that has been successful in Baltimore, New Mexico, Oakland, and Chicago, the places where Elev8 operates, it has given the programs a much stronger base—a real constituency ready to fight for continued and increased funding. Far from a foundation experiment parachuted into these communities, Elev8 is now owned by the communities themselves—children, parents, teachers, administrators. This has greatly strengthened Elev8 for the budget fights they are facing. There are important lessons here for other initiatives.
And in Ireland, another funny thing happened. We feared that the dire fiscal constraints of the new Fine Gael government would cause its ministers to lose interest in our partnerships. But the early signs are that the scarcity of public dollars, far from being an excuse to abandon proven programs, increases the interest in them. When you don’t have money to spare, you want to make sure it goes to places it will have the most impact. I met with the new Finance Minister for Public Investment when I was in Dublin a few weeks ago and I found him keenly interested in learning as much as he could about every program we believe to be effective.
Will that happen in the United States, in our highly polarized political environment, where, despite the involvement of respected Republicans like Steve Goldsmith, any misstep by the Social Innovation Fund or the Corporation for National Service will be seized upon by ideologues brandishing megaphones in our 24-7 cable news/talk radio/blogosphere? The actions we take in the next critical phase of what I will reluctantly call the scaling up movement will provide the answer, or at least the possibility of one.
There is an impressive community of people gathered in this room, and around similar tables in a number of institutions, who have brought a new and welcome rigor to philanthropy. Most importantly, you are thinking big thoughts about big problems. But we—and here, despite my lunch table comments at the outset, I must declare myself in solidarity with you—are not yet a movement, and to be blunt we have much too slender connections to existing movements. If that does not change, I fear we will not have what it takes to take the work being discussed these few days to the next level—to really institutionalize a way of thinking.
A movement is missing because we have failed make our case in the moral terms it demands. No one is drawn to school reform or poverty reduction because of programs. No one marches to war under the banner of effectiveness. People mobilize to right a wrong or address an injustice. They convene around a collective will to change the world for the better.
We demand schools that work for poor children because it is a moral obscenity that, in a rich country, for all too many of our children, they do not. We want poor people not to have to jump through hoops to access social benefits to which they are entitled not because we love to see a logic model working perfectly, but because no one should have to go hungry or homeless. When people have rights, they must be respected.
I’ve spoken at much greater length elsewhere about the need to restore moral language to the work of philanthropy and nonprofits and plan, as many of you know, to write about it much more in the coming months. So I won’t belabor these points now, but close with a few other observations and recommendations.
First, as I have suggested, we need to think hard about the language we use. I think some of us fear that if we use plain language or speak from the heart, we won’t be taken seriously. We are still in many ways fighting the battles of the 1960s and reeling from the attacks on Ford and other foundations who dared to talk about the root causes of social ills. But we don’t need to abandon the high road to get the details right. We can do both. Rigor and moral clarity need not be in tension. They are mutually reinforcing and mutually dependent.
It’s fine for us wonks to talk about scaling and metrics, but let’s keep that in the family. To build the missing constituency for what works requires us to understand that evidence does not drive policy unless a compelling message is there. And I would submit, back to Harlem Children’s Zone and Teach for America, that for all their metrics and business plans, they are paradigmatic social ventures because they tell a story that is compelling, and a story with compelling messengers.
Finally, though, we need even more than language and stories. We need muscle. And the muscle will be there when ordinary people—the parents and students and community leaders who benefit from the important work that is represented by so many here today—feel their own stake in it, deeply, and take action to protect it. Too often the face of our field is the face of the social entrepreneur, and too often despite the many black and brown people involved, it is a white face. That also needs to change.
Navigating the waters to bring lasting change to scale in the U.S. at the moment is to wade through waters infested with budgetary and political sharks. The only way we can achieve impact at any scale is if we become a movement for change, combining proven metrics and effective programs with communications and advocacy efforts propelled by a shared vision and story of who we are, what we’re trying to achieve, and why the change we seek is vital to the lives of real people in every community. When that happens, we will have a movement, and yes, we will have the scale that is equal to the challenges we face.
 

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Rip Rapson
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