7 strategies for scaling up

I introduced in my last post “Does size matter?” three arguments in favour of not-for-profits scaling up and promised to share the strategies we are rolling out to see our organisation deliver beyond our current boundaries and limitations.

In reflecting on the things we are doing to set ourselves up for growth, I’ve come up with seven headlines which can be categorised under ‘thinking inside the box’ (i.e. what can we do internally?) and ‘thinking outside the box’ (i.e. who/what can support us?). 

Thinking inside the box

1. Technology implementation

As a five-year old operation set up on spreadsheets, we decided this time last year to invest in a technology platform that would enable us to create efficiencies, improve our reporting capabilities, enhance our communications with key stakeholders and support our growth. It is early days for this system, but it’s showing promising outcomes.

2. Refining our programs

A few elements fall under this headline. The first is around ‘plan, pilot, adjust’ - we always pilot before rolling out. For instance, our very first program was piloted with three groups only, before extending it to many more based on positive results. We again trialled a new program last year which ended up being a less favourable formula, and so we adapted our approach this year with something that has to date proven impactful. This ‘plan, pilot, adjust’ sequence allows us to continuously improve our offering with a more nimble effect on our operations.  

Combined with this piloting tactic, we have reviewed our offering to identify parts of the programs that may not be necessary or indeed may affect our impact. I recall Professor Huggy Rao talking about the ‘subtraction game’ during the Stanford University Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders I attended in 2015. As he and Robert Sutton spell it out in their book Scaling Up Excellence, “Scaling isn’t just a problem of more. Scaling is a problem of less too, and subtraction is often an essential tool for doing it better.” 

For example, our programs used to include a two-day and a five-day outdoor adventure education trip. We realised over the years that the initial two-day was not supporting the change we wanted our young participants to experience and it was creating additional logistical issues for us and our partner schools. So we removed it. This also allowed us to shorten our program so that it could neatly fit within one school term. These are examples of small refinements that go a long way in making our programs more scalable.

Where we’ve subtracted, we are also adding. For instance, some of the changes we are making to the program are likely to support us in increasing the size of our groups. This would mean, more young people accessing our programs, more youth impacted. Staying true to ourselves, we’ll first pilot a larger group, before rolling it out across the board. 

3. Assessing our resources

Related to program delivery is the aspect of resourcing. In our case, this is largely our coaches who work with our young participants. We are reviewing their selection criteria and the training we offer to ensure we can recruit as many coaches as possible to meet a growing demand, whilst keeping our programs as impactful as ever.

4. Protecting our core mission

Scaling up could bring the risks of diluting our impact and that is something we don’t want. ‘Success’ to us is about positively impacting the lives of thousands of young Australians each year. So as we go through our strategies and tactics, we must keep a firm eye on how they might influence our impact and our core mission to ensure we grow successfully.

Thinking outside the box

5. Collaboration is key

How can our expertise (i.e. developmental coaching for adolescents) and someone else’s expertise combine to create a meaningful and broader impact on young lives? We are actively exploring this concept through conversations with partners and sector colleagues. An important aspect of this is to think of other organisations not as competitors, but potential allies.

6. Diversifying our income

If we want to scale, we must think of doing things slightly different to what we have been doing to date and this includes, how we generate our income. As such, we’re currently exploring a couple of social enterprise models, assessing their potential and risks, undertaking some market research, developing financial scenarios, etc. Our ultimate objective is to continue to access donations and grants, while supporting our capacity building and infrastructure through our own revenue.

7. Everyone is part of the solution 

Our growth ambitions need to be supported by everyone - not just our team - both theoretically and physically. We have a hands-on board with directors involved in various aspects of our strategy. When we identify a need we can’t answer in-house, we reach out to our networks and try to find someone who can lend a hand. ‘Everyone being part of the solution’ also means running our ideas past those potentially impacted by them - whether they are internal or external to our organisation. We are in the process of doing exactly this with our partner schools in regards to an initiative we’re exploring.

As you may have gathered, scaling up is a slow race - at least for our organisation. We’re gearing up for a marathon rather than a sprint. We are not doing every aspect mentioned above perfectly, but we’re working at it.

If you have led an organisation through growth or are planning or going through the trials and tribulations of scaling up, I’d love to hear about your own experience. I believe sharing knowledge is key, particularly for the not-for-profit sector, to learning and growing successfully.

Kim Larochelle

Kim joined The Helmsman Project as a volunteer when it first started delivering programs in 2013. In January 2014, she became one of the organisation's first two employees. She has since had the privilege, along with the team, to witness and support The Helmsman Project's growth.

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