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New Report Sheds Light on How Effective Nonprofits Expand Their Reach Through Partnerships

Expanding Reach of Nonprofits Through Partnerships
September 19, 2017

       The Wallace Foundation




The Wallace Foundation
Lucas Held


 New Report Sheds Light on How Effective Nonprofits Expand Their Reach Through Partnerships

Funders and Nonprofits Are Keenly Interested in ‘Scaling Up’ Strategies

New York – As funders, social innovators, policymakers and researchers pay greater attention to expanding the reach of effective programs, a new report analyzes how 45 nonprofits did just that by creating partnerships to serve more people while still maintaining program quality.

The study, “Strategies to Scale Up Social Programs: Pathways, Partnerships and Fidelity,” analyzes the choices the 45 programs made and offers insights into how partnerships can be a way to bring effective programs to more participants. The programs—in the fields of education, afterschool and healthcare—are combating some of society’s most important problems, such as climate change, diabetes, illiteracy, infant mortality, learning loss, violence, low esteem, hunger, and homelessness.  

The report found that the 45 social programs studied, which all expanded their reach through partnerships, each faced three key strategic choices: how to structure their partnerships, whom to partner with, and the need to address the fidelity of implementation. Diffusion Associates, a consulting firm that works to spread, implement and assess innovations, wrote the report, commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

“Without a doubt, scale up of social programs in the United States is occurring in education, youth development and health, and the phenomenon is real,” said lead author R. Sam Larson. “These are real success stories that show how social entrepreneurs and a variety of organizations can work together to effect change. To our knowledge, no other study has assessed a larger number of effective programs that have successfully scaled up, and we believe these lessons may help other organizations trying to do that.”

The authors found that the 45 efforts studied took three main pathways to scale their programs using partnerships:

  • Branching, in which a lead organization developed a program, distributed, and implemented it. This allowed for the greatest control, but took the most time. An example is Playworks, a national nonprofit organization in Oakland, Calif., that supports learning and physical health by providing safe and inclusive play to low-income students in urban schools. It has grown to include 23 regional offices overseeing implementation in 1,300 schools for 700,000 children. 

  • Affiliate, in which additional organizations offered a program, using their own resources. This resulted in lower control by the lead organization. An example is the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL), which provides seed money and assistance for local urban debate organizations to become nonprofits and then affiliates of the national network. 

  • A distribution network, in which the lead organization worked with a partner to reach members, who may modify the program. This method offers the lowest control by the lead organization, but is fastest to scale. Often the distribution partner is a national organization with many local member agencies, such as the YMCA or Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

The researchers collected nearly 500 documents about the 45 programs to systematically code for strategic decisions made by lead organizations—those initiating a social program or bringing it to scale. They also interviewed 100 leaders and implementers associated with the programs and selected four programs for in-depth study through more interviews and site visits to better understand their work and challenges. Larson’s co-authors are James W. Dearing and Thomas E. Backer.

The study also examines how partners found each other, which is a crucial step for social entrepreneurs. Almost always, one partner played a lead role linking partners. Distribution partners worked with lead partners to offer a program to network members. Implementing partners were local organizations that directly delivered the program to beneficiaries. Other approaches to scaling, such as dissemination and social marketing, were not the focus of the study.

The report notes that the Campus Kitchens Project is another social program that expanded through affiliates. The national nonprofit group partners with students at universities, colleges and high schools to recover unwanted or surplus food to provide meals to hungry people. Affiliates now are located on more than 60 campuses nationwide. In 2015-2016, 28,697 student volunteers recovered more than 1.3 million pounds of food and prepared nearly 350,000 meals. The national nonprofit group has just 12 staff members, but partners with numerous funders. “Partnering with universities and students is the sweet spot,” said Laura Toscano, director of The Campus Kitchens Project. “Turning our nation’s institutions of higher education into hubs for replication and ongoing innovation could be the superhighway to scaling up for any nonprofit.” 

The report also says that some developers of social programs worked with partners to reinvent and simplify programs to increase the chances of achieving scale. It notes that some developers were comfortable with having others adapt a program to their own, local needs.

“Many foundations, nonprofits and government agencies are involved in scaling up social programs and consider it to be one of their most critical activities, but their leaders often are uncertain about what factors to consider,” said Hilary Rhodes, a senior research and evaluation officer at The Wallace Foundation. “We hope this study offers funders and nonprofits some insights into how organizations can grow strategically through partnerships.”

“Strategies to Scale Up Social Programs: Pathways, Partnerships and Fidelity,” is available at

The Wallace Foundation
The Wallace Foundation seeks to improve education and enrichment for disadvantaged children and foster the vitality of arts for everyone. The foundation has an unusual approach: funding efforts to test innovative ideas for solving important public problems, conducting research to find out what works and what doesn’t and to fill key knowledge gaps – and then communicating the results to help others. Wallace, which works nationally, has five major initiatives under way:

  • School leadership: Strengthening education leadership to improve student achievement.

  • Afterschool: Helping selected cities make good afterschool programs available to many more children.

  • Building audiences for the arts: Enabling arts organizations to bring the arts to a broader and more diverse group of people.

  • Arts education: Expanding arts learning opportunities for children and teens.

  • Summer learning: Better understanding the impact of high-quality summer learning programs on disadvantaged children. 

  • Social and emotional learning: Aligning and improving opportunities for social and emotional learning for children across school and out-of-school-time settings.

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