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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

To Scale or Not to Scale: What Should Nonprofits Consider Before Deciding to Expand a Program for Greater Impact?

As nonprofit professionals, we all want to impact the greatest possible number with our work. For many, this means expanding programs, or “scaling up.”

“Today, there may be no idea with greater currency in the social sector than ‘scaling what works’” (Bradach, 2010, p. ix). Just because a program works well on its current scale, however, does not mean that it will automatically be successful on a larger scale. For nonprofits seeking to expand their programs, careful analysis of self and environment are crucial. Ask the following questions:

 Why should the program scale up?

What type of impact is the program making, and is it one that can be most effectively increased by scaling up this individual program? Keep in mind that many of the most complex and intractable social issues that nonprofits face can only be effectively addressed by collective impact, via collaboration among organizations or even across sectors.

 Scalable programs should be based on a strong theory of change or logic model, clearly linking program inputs to outcomes in a way that can be tested and evaluated to determine actual effectiveness. Defining and measuring social impacts, determining whether the intervention is effective and why, and being able to prove efficacy with solid evidence are important prerequisites to a decision to scale (Harris, 2010; Riddell & Moore, 2015; Roob & Bradach, 2009; Stone Foundation, 2009).

Who is involved? Are they the best possible actors for the mission the organization seeks to achieve?

Organizations should examine their own structure and capacity. Scaling of any kind will involve organizational and management challenges; internal and external organizational changes that enable the scaling process take much more time and effort than most expect (Riddell & Moore, 2015). If money is invested for expansion before the organizational infrastructure is there to support it, a program won’t get to scale, and it risks losing fidelity to its mission or straining the organization (Stone Foundation, 2009).

Interventions seeking to “go to scale” must also have support from stakeholders, with buy-in by all involved (Harris, 2010). Having people with the right skills on board, fully engaged, and in the right positions is of high importance. If program evaluation has been done well, this may be one useful tool to help convince stakeholders to buy in (Harris, 2010).

How should the program expand? 

"Codify, then adapt” (Paul, 2013). This involves identifying the core of the program’s model and isolating that fundamental structure to determine the “minimum specifications” – nonnegotiable aspects that must be in place in order to achieve impact (Bradach, 2003; Harris, 2010; Paul, 2013; Riddell & Moore, 2015; Sutton & Rao, 2014). Then, the challenge is to protect the integrity and fidelity of that core model while adapting to local needs, assets, resources, and any signs that certain aspects of the model may need to be modified as it grows.

Depending upon the rigidity of program structure, it may be best to scale in the manner of “Catholicism” or “Buddhism.” “Catholic” scaling involves replicating preordained beliefs and practices, whereas “Buddhist” scaling involves spreading an underlying mindset that guides actions, but the specifics of those actions can be modified or invented anew to fit local conditions (Sutton & Rao, 2014).

How much should the program expand?

When it comes to capacity, funding is an inescapable consideration for nonprofits. Identifying and leveraging new resources will be necessary for almost any scaling endeavor, and sometimes entirely new funding models will be required. Scaling programs entails two main types of costs: one-time investment in capacity for growth, and recurring operating expenses to sustain ongoing expanded programs. The former tends to be the province of philanthropy, which loves seeding start-ups but quickly moves on to the next promising idea, while the latter may be ripe for government involvement (Roob & Bradach, 2009).

Even if scaling goes well, is there a point at which the expansion could become unmanageable or unsustainable? Will incremental change need to occur, or will sudden expansion (e.g. rolling out additional services with the grand opening of a new location) be successful? Are there any industry paradigms that create artificial limits on the program’s scale? Finally, what practices “got us here but won’t get us there?” (Sutton & Rao, 2014).

An unflinchingly honest self-appraisal can help a nonprofit to find its wings, identify the best path for the program, and ultimately prevent an Icarian demise. Organizations that take the time to carefully consider these questions and answer them with due diligence and integrity will already be leagues ahead of those that rush headlong to “get to scale”. If each key question has been comprehensively addressed, and the answers are promising, then it is time to spread your wings, keep your eyes on your guiding path, and take the leap.


Bradach J. L. (2003), Going to scale: The challenge of replicating social programs. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 1, 19–25.

 Bradach, J. L. (2010). Foreword: From scaling organizations to scaling impact. Scaling Social Impact: New Thinking, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, Iv-xiv.

Harris, E. (2010). Six steps to successfully scale impact in the nonprofit sector. The Evaluation Exchange, 15(1), 4–6. Retrieved from

Paul, R. (2013). Scale = partnership. Stanford Social Innovation Review, August 26, 2013, retrieved from

Riddell, D., & Moore, M. (2015). Scaling out, scaling up, scaling deep: Advancing systemic social innovation and the learning processes to support it. Prepared for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and Tamarack Institute, October 2015, retrieved from

Roob, N., & Bradach, J. L. (2009). Scaling what works: Implications for philanthropists, policymakers, and nonprofit leaders. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and The Bridgespan Group.

Stone Foundation (2009). Challenges and considerations in scaling nonprofit organizations. Retrieved from

Sutton, R. I., & Rao, H. (2014). Scaling up excellence: Getting to more without settling for less. New York, NY: Crown Business.


Alisa is a social impact marketer, communicator and more, driven by the conviction that every person deserves to have their basic needs met and live a life that they value. Alisa earned her Master of Leadership & Management from ASU in May 2017. During her time at ASU she was a Project Specialist in Marketing/Communications at the ASU Lodestar Center.


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