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June 29, 2011

On June 15, 2011, Gara LaMarche, President and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, delivered a speech before the participants of the second annual Conference on Scaling Impact, hosted by the Social Impact Exchange in New York City. Over the next three days, the Intrepid Philanthropist will run the text of Gara’s speech. Here is Part I.

I very much appreciate the invitation offered by my friends Joel Fleishman and Ed Skloot to speak here today. When they asked me some months ago if I would take part in the second annual scaling up conference, I warned them that I did not consider myself a particularly big “scaler.” In truth I was a little intimidated by the all-star scaler line-up assembled for today and tomorrow featuring the leading funders and social entrepreneurs working in this expanding space. In the high school cafeteria of philanthropy, I’m afraid I am more likely to be found at the “social justice” table, dodging the Slurpees thrown my way by the more popular kids at the scaling table.

Seriously, though, and happily, the world of philanthropy is not divided into such opposing camps. Almost every funder is a hybrid of styles and approaches, and that’s as it should be in the pluralistic trade in which we work. For instance, I would like to think that the work of Atlantic Philanthropies, which for nearly five years I have been privileged to lead, stands at the intersection of the effectiveness and social justice movements, exactly the right place to be. I’ll have more to say about this in a little while.
Before I warm to my theme today, though, I want to pause to poke a few pins in the often overinflated balloon of our sector, particularly a few of its cherished buzzwords. For starters, just to call it a sector, a word I never heard used about the nonprofit organizations I worked for until I ventured over to the funding side, is to inflate it a bit further. To be honest, until I went into philanthropy about fifteen years ago, I never thought much about foundation strategies. Foundations were simply piles of money that might be available for the organizations I worked for, including ACLU and Human Rights Watch, if I hit the right buttons. So of course I made myself familiar with foundations’ missions and guidelines to that end, but that end only. I didn’t care much or think much about the foundations themselves and what they might be trying to achieve. The relationship was purely instrumental. Almost any honest grant-seeker, whatever regard or respect they may have for one or more of their funders, will surely tell you that, at least after a few drinks.

Only when I went to work for the Open Society Institute in 1996 did I come to develop—big shocker coming—a foundation-centric view of the world, where the world of nonprofits is divided up into your grantees and others, where you scan the New York Times each morning for evidence of your impact, customized a bit like that Roz Chast New Yorker cartoon where the man is reading the obituary pages and each item carries headings like, “ten years younger than you,” “three years older than you,” “exactly your age.” A little more humility in our line of work is always in order, and I look forward to having much to be humble about when I leave my post at Atlantic later this summer.

Now let me say a few words about scaling—what it is and what it isn’t. It’s a perfectly dreadful term, by the way, if you’re not a fishmonger or Spiderman making his way up the side of a building, and too myopic a view about scaling can get in the way of . . . well, scaling. I’m sure other speakers at this conference before and after me have made this distinction, but it needs pointing out that scaling isn’t for everyone and every issue. A lot of what Atlantic does—or OSI, or Ford, or others—isn’t relevant to scaling, like trying to close Guantanamo or pass comprehensive immigration reform. Some advocacy campaigns, particularly those which proceed on a state-by-state basis, like the effort to end the death penalty or advance same-sex marriage, do rely on a kind of scaling, but the set of tools involved, like public interest litigation, is often quite different from those relied on for other social interventions. In that sense, Brown v. Board of Education or Miranda v. Arizona are the quintessential examples of scaling—when the Supreme Court strikes down a practice as unconstitutional, it has an impact well beyond the one place which gave rise to the lawsuit.

Of course there are also initiatives that one wants to keep small, either because the circumstances are not replicable or because a choice is made to limit or focus, like a scholarship program or work that is meant to be limited to a certain neighborhood or constituency group.

So when we speak of scaling up we are mainly speaking of initiatives that address big societal challenges, like education, health, and housing, where an approach can tested, improved and proven on a manageable basis and where having done so, given the huge scope of the challenge, it is appropriate or even imperative to extend the benefits much more widely.

A quick comment here, if I may, about an overused word that often appears in the same sentence as scaling up, and that is innovation. I have a problem with it, because I think the word often reflects a bias toward novelty that I question. It is easy enough to say that the most vexing problems of our society—underperforming schools, homelessness, crime, lack of access to health care—have defied solution, and that we have to break out of the box to find new ways of dealing with them. But what is often really the case is that the old ways were never really given a chance to work, or that the lessons learned in earlier times have been forgotten or even trampled over by ideological assaults.

I am a big admirer, for example, of my friend Geoff Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone and have been privileged to provide support for it both at OSI and Atlantic. It is justly celebrated. But is Geoff’s insight about the holistic approach to improving outcomes for children in his community an innovative one? Or does it have much in common with the work of Jane Addams and other progressive reformers in the settlement house movement at the turn of the previous century? Does that matter at all? Is Teach for America, another admirable institution, innovative because it taps the idealism of young people for service? Or is it the Peace Corps or Vista applied to urban education?

I don’t make these comparisons to denigrate either HCZ or TFA, two paradigmatic institutions created by leaders who are among the most tenacious and visionary of our era. I raise them to ask us to be more careful about touting innovation as an end in itself because that kind of thinking can boomerang against effective programs when, inevitably, they are no longer the flavor of the month.

Gara LaMarche