One of the words you hear in the startup world is scale, which is the ability of a company to grow its customer base or revenue without a significant increase in operating costs. When you look at the social sector, there’s a big opportunity for scale as well, enabling organizations to increase (aka scale) their social impact.

Unfortunately, most nonprofits don’t naturally scale. First let’s look at scale in terms of technology companies vs. service businesses.

As venture capitalist Paul Graham writes, most companies are service businesses – like “restaurants, barbershops, plumbers, and so on.” Service businesses do not scale. That’s because there are a fixed number of hours in a day, the revenue is dependent on a person or people to do the work, and so there’s a limit to how many customers it can serve. To serve more customers, it has to hire more people to do the work, which raises operating costs significantly.

A software company, on the other hand, is a scalable business. The software is created by people, and the company can serve 10 or 10,000 customers with little increase in operating costs (I’m simplifying, but you get the point).

Most nonprofits are service businesses – the organization provides a service, that is delivered by people. As a result, nonprofits typically don’t scale: to serve more constituents, they have to add more staff. To really scale, you have to disassociate the people from the service, and allow more people to receive the service, without adding more people to your staff.

Even though nonprofits provide an important service, they’re not limited by the way they provide the service. Here are a few ways that they can scale their service and scale their social impact.

1. Technology-Enabled Services: Scaling Through Technology

Social organizations can deliver a service through technology, like an app, SMS-based program, or website. By solving a specific problem using mobile or web, they can serve far more people than direct service alone.

Example: Preventing Sexual Violence Before It Happens with the Circle of 6 App

Here’s a startling fact: One in six college-age women is sexually assaulted. To prevent sexual assault even before it happens, The Line Campaign created the Circle of 6 App, which lets you add six close friends in your Circle, and provides tools to alert Circle members if you find yourself in a potentially unsafe situation. Here are some great features you can get from this app:

  • Instantly send a pre-written text message to the Circle saying, “Come and get me. I need help getting home safely.” including a map using GPS to show them exactly where you are.
  • Remove yourself from a situation with the pre-written text, “Call and pretend you need me. I need an interruption.”
  • One-click access to national violence hotlines and a local number you can customize.

The app tied for first place in the Apps Against Abuse Technology Challenge, a project of the Office of the Vice President and the White House Office of Science and Technology.

“Thanks to the creativity and vision of these developers, young people now have a new line of defense against violence in their lives.” – Vice President Joe Biden

2. Product-Enabled Services: Scaling Through Products

Organizations can develop a product that solves a specific need, which can be provided or sold to end users.

Example: PureMadi Creates Water Purification Tablet for the Developing World

PureMadi Water Purification Tablet - Scaling Social ImpactA large percentage of the world lives without ready access to clean drinking water. The nonprofit PureMadi from the University of Virginia announced a new innovative water purification tablet called MadiDrop, a small ceramic disk with silver and copper nanoparticles that purifies water for up to six months. In testing, the tablet killed 99.9% of waterborne pathogens that can cause diarrhea, vomiting or dehydration. The tablet is the second product from PureMadi; the first is a filter shaped like a flower pot that’s being used widely in South Africa. The MadiDrop tablet will be smaller and easier to use, but will likely be used together with the flower pot filter. Even better news: the filters are made in South Africa with local labor and materials.

Explains James Smith, co-leader of the project:

“Eventually [the factory] will be capable of producing about 500 to 1,000 filters per month, and our 10-year plan is to build 10 to 12 factories in South Africa and other countries. Each filter can serve a family of five or six for two to five years, so we plan to eventually serve at least 500,000 people per year with new filters.”

Source: In The Capital

3. “Train the Trainer” Services – Scaling Through People

Train the Trainer services are delivered by people who then train others, creating a ripple effect of social impact.

Example: CodeNow Teaches Computer Programming to Inner City High School Students

CodeNow is a nonprofit that encourages students from inner city neighborhoods to pick up computer programming. The organizations brings together software developers and students, provides each student with a netbook computer, and provides 45 hours of programming training after school and during breaks. Once they complete the program, many students get internships at tech startups and come back to the program to teach other students. There are also plans to set up an alumni network, which will involve mentoring, hackathon events throughout the year and internship possibilities. Since launching in 2011 CodeNow has provided more than 2,500 hours of free training and awarded 53 netbooks. It has also made gains in another key area in tech: in an industry that’s only 25% women, 40% of CodeNow students are girls.

From tech blog ZDNet:

“Teaching other kids to code isn’t a complex idea,” says [founder Ryan] Seashore. “As I did more and more research, I didn’t find others doing this in a scalable way.”

As Seashore describes, CodeNow as a non-profit with “more of a startup approach,” the organization hasn’t received donations from foundations, but from individuals that “really get what we’re doing.”

Source: VentureBeat

Other Ways To Scale Social Impact

What are some other ways your organization can scale social impact using technology, products or people?

  • Turn your unique information into a curriculum or video series that people can sign up for online
  • Offer regular webinars or online conferences
  • Partner with other organizations who are “approved” by your organization to deliver your services

Your turn: How are you scaling your social impact? Please share with us in the Comments section!

Image Source: Rachel Schmidt/PureMadi

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