Scaling Programs to Create Local Impact

There’s a conversation I keep finding myself in with different people: that the fastest, even most effective way to create community change is to “scale” national programs. People who push “scale” usually have sound intentions and an appealing sense of urgency to get things done. But how can we scale programs so they actually fit the very communities we want to help?

I’m all for “scale.” A whole host of effective programs exist which I hope communities will find ways to leverage to improve their local conditions. These programs are “national treasures” in a way – the result of years of hard work and trial and error. Importantly, when leveraged across communities, they can help us to create a different trajectory for the nation.

But in our urgent desire to go to scale we can leave behind, ignore, or simply fail to truly “see” the very communities we seek to aid. I’ve documented this dilemma in the Organization-First Approach, a report on how organizations become so engrossed in pushing their own programs, focusing on process, and positioning themselves, that they fail to “turn outward” to the communities they want to strengthen, even transform.

The result is unintended consequences and, worse yet, missed opportunities to truly spread these effective, national programs. Here’s what I mean:

  •  We can fail to engage the people who live in a community to understand their aspirations and concerns, because we assume our program meets universal hopes. Such hopes may indeed be universal, but they may also miss the mark in how people actually experience their own lives and what matters most to them. Even efforts to “tailor” national programs to local communities can miss the mark – the overriding goal becomes wedging a program in, as opposed to finding ways to truly start where people are.
  • We enter communities with the need to marshal local resources in the name of our program. While we may enjoy success in raising such resources, our efforts may never really change the way a community does business (the development of fundamentally different relationships, norms, credible leaders, issues on the public agenda, etc). We miss a golden opportunity to bring about the very transformation people long for.
  • We assume because our program has worked elsewhere, it will work in the next set of communities we target. But one of the most vexing obstacles to community change is a lack of local readiness and capacity to spark and build that change. It must be built with intention.
  • In our desire to scale, we overlook, or simply disregard, the need for a larger strategy for community change. A community-focused strategy would work to put in motion a different dynamic in the community, create pockets of change people can see and touch, and help people gain confidence in their ability to generate change together. We must use individual programs to leverage these larger efforts.

The task for those of us who are serious about creating real change is to help communities strategically leverage programs and initiatives with a proven track record. Not everything has to be – or could ever be – locally grown. We must take advantage of the treasures of national programs we have.

Make no mistake: we need to scale programs that work. But that scaling cannot and will not result in the kind of change we seek if we don’t do the hard work of aligning those programs to the context of our community. This will require that we turn outward to see and engage with communities. Otherwise, what are we really up to?