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Paul Bloom: Scale like a triathlete

In order to scale their organizations, social entrepreneurs need to prepare, build up their resources and ask themselves the right questions, says the co-editor of the book “Scaling Social Impact: New Thinking.”


May 24, 2011

The first time Paul Bloom tried to complete a triathlon, he wasn’t prepared. He didn’t have a wet suit. He didn’t have a good bicycle. He didn’t know how to pace himself. He dropped out.

Many social entrepreneurs, he said, make the same mistake when they try to scale -- or expand and increase the impact -- of their organization.

“Everybody seems to be trying to [scale], but the success stories are limited. So a lot of people are making mistakes,” said Bloom, faculty director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship and an adjunct professor of social entrepreneurship and marketing at Duke University.

“You have to be prepared. You have to have starting resources in terms of human, financial, social, political and technological capital,” he said. “If you’re really weak on most of those starting resources, then you shouldn’t even try to scale because you just don’t have the resources necessary to do it.”

Bloom, who has gone on to complete hundreds of triathlons and run 16 marathons, researches the best way to scale social entrepreneurial organizations. He co-edited the 2010 book, “Scaling Social Impact: New Thinking”, a collection of original papers written by various scholars about scaling successfully.

Bloom spoke to Faith & Leadership about what he has learned about how to scale social entrepreneurial organizations, the capabilities that social entrepreneurs need to scale, and the difference between scaling an organization and scaling for impact. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What does it take to scale successfully?

I’m a triathlete, and I liken scaling to preparing for a triathlon or a marathon. The first time I tried a triathlon I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t have the resources or the capability, and I didn’t have all the equipment I needed to compete as a triathlete. I didn’t have a wet suit; I didn’t have a good bike; I didn’t know how to swim with a whole bunch of other people swimming in the water around me; I didn’t know how to deal with steep hills or sharp turns on a bike course; and I didn’t know how to pace myself and eat food while competing. In order to scale a challenge like that, whether it’s a triathlon or a marathon, you really need to be prepared.

The same applies to organizations looking to scale: You have to be prepared. You have to have starting resources in terms of human, financial, social, political and technological capital. If you’re really weak on most of those starting resources, then you shouldn’t even try to scale because you just don’t have the resources necessary to do it.

The other thing that matters is your theory of change.

Q: What do you mean by theory of change?

Your theory of change may dictate what is most important for driving your success. What are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to disseminate an idea or an approach to doing something or to change a behavior or a recommended change in behavior?

If you’re not all about changing laws and regulations or you’re not all about labor-intensive services as part of your theory of change, then the drivers of staffing and lobbying may not be very important for you to be successful at scaling or having impact.

If you want to persuade people to change their behavior -- like they shouldn’t smoke, drink or abuse their spouses -- that can be labor-intensive, but it also requires very strong capability in communicating. You’ve got to be able to develop messages and campaigns in order to persuade people that they should behave differently.

If you think you’re going to accomplish social change by providing some very innovative but very labor-intensive service to people, then that means you’ve got to worry about your staffing capability more.

Q: You mentioned the capabilities of communicating, lobbying and staffing. What are all the capabilities that organizations need to scale?

You need organizational capabilities in the seven areas defined [in the book “Scaling Social Impact”] as SCALERS: staffing, communicating, alliance building, lobbying, earnings generation, replicating and stimulating market forces.

“Communicating” and “alliance building” are self-explanatory. This term “staffing” is broader than just how do you find your staff. It basically has to do with your human resources and how well you perform in attracting and retaining important people to deliver your products or services, to manage your organization, to volunteer for them, or to sit on your board or advisory group.

“Lobbying” is broader than just lobbying. It has to do with advocacy and trying to persuade governments and public policymakers to support what you’re doing either financially or with new laws and regulations that could benefit you.

“Earnings generation” does not just mean earned income activities. It means being good at your business model and developing various sources of revenue that exceed your expenses.

“Replicating” can mean a lot of things having to do with delivering on your theory of change in new settings or with new populations. That can involve a whole range of approaches from franchising and consignment to growing your organization with new offices, branches or even affiliates.

“Stimulating market forces” is the idea that by participating in some kinds of markets it can be helpful to your organization both on the revenue generation side so that it helps with your earnings generation but also it can stimulate or encourage behaviors that you want people to engage in that they might not engage in otherwise. So it’s not just for purposes of generating earnings for their organization. They seek to achieve social change in scale.

Those are seven capabilities that you want to be strong at rather than weak at, but it’s not necessary to be strong in all the areas for all organizations to scale. So if you’re starting a scaling attempt with limitations in a certain area, then there are corresponding capabilities that you have to build more effectively.

Q: What are some examples of how this would work in practice?

If you’re starting a scaling attempt and you’re not particularly strong in your human capital, then you have to develop your capability in the staffing or human resources area.

Or, if you’re already strong in human capital, then there’s a ceiling effect and it’s not as important perhaps as building up your earnings generation or your replicating or your stimulating market forces capability. You’re not going to have as big a return on investment on staff, because you’re hitting these ceiling effects if you’re already strong.

That can be an issue. There’s an awful lot of emphasis for these kinds of organizations to say, “Oh, we’ve got to get good people.” Well, you may already have some good people, and maybe you need to focus on some other things. Good people alone can’t accomplish scaling.

If you’re broke or if you’re always struggling for money, for example, then the whole thing is about finding earned income sources or getting some kind of government funding or some type of loans or financing from a financial institution or a foundation or a donor.

Q: What are the mistakes that social entrepreneurs make as they try to scale?

Everybody seems to be trying to do it, but the success stories of scaling are limited, so a lot of people are making mistakes.

I think one of the biggest mistakes is flying by the seat of your pants and not doing research and evaluation.

Q: What should social entrepreneurs evaluate and research before decided to scale? What questions should they ask themselves?

They need to think both about their resources and, to some degree, their capabilities in those seven SCALER areas, and then what their theory of change is. They need to see if they have an adequate pool of resources and are capable of building on those resources in the future. Can they be good at recruiting new people or developing a replication system using franchising or finding markets that they can enter?

Part of that is looking at your own resources, but then part of that is also looking at the forces and trends in the external environment and understanding the ecosystem.

What’s happening with the economy? What’s happening in terms of culture? What are some trends and forces out there that might affect your resources or your capability in the future, and how well do you match up with where the trends and forces are going?

If the economy is tanking, then obviously earnings generation will probably become a more important capability, because it’s probably going to affect your financial resources or your financial capital.

If young people are becoming even more involved with social media than they have been in the past, then it’s going to be hard to develop a replicating system or a communication system that doesn’t use social media.

You’ve got to pay attention to what’s happening outside, and you also need to pay attention to other organizations. This can overlap with social capital. But what other organizations are out there that you can form alliances with or that could present obstacles for you that are in a sense potential enemies or challengers? And are there some people or organizations out there who have been bystanders who you could potentially convert?

Q: What’s the difference between scaling for impact and scaling your organization?

One way of scaling is to develop branches or grow your organization or franchise or MicroConsignment [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MicroConsignment] or whatever it might be. In many cases that’s the way you have to go. But in some cases you can scale effectively by building on or creating a social movement, or disseminating an idea very effectively.

Greg Dees, my colleague at Duke who is kind of the father of social entrepreneurship, always talks about hospice as something that was scaled in terms of impact. The promotion of hospice or palliative care is something that has not been done through one organization; it’s been done through dissemination of the pros and cons of it, the approach and the idea.

Another example is the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. This was a small organization that had a staff of five or six people, but they really set the tobacco industry on its ear. They did so through filing lawsuits, lobbying very cleverly, and persuading other allies to join them in trying to seek changes in tobacco laws and tobacco availability. That’s scaling for impact more than scaling the organization.

Q: How much of successful scaling is dependent on the organization’s leader?

I think charisma helps a lot, both in terms of being able to attract others to work with you and in order to be able to attract funders and donors.

You also have to be good at creating a vision and sticking to it. You can’t be overly opportunistic. For example, every time a new financial opportunity comes along or a new potential alliance comes along, make sure it’s consistent with your mission and vision. Don’t get distracted into doing anything that violates some of your principles in order to take advantage of a potentially shorter term opportunity.

It also helps to be thick-skinned and to be able to learn from your failures and from rejections. These people are resilient.

Going back to the charisma thing -- just to give you an example. Two years ago I was at a social entrepreneurship conference in Oxford, England. My son was with me, who is a TV reporter in San Francisco. We were at a cocktail party, and we were standing next to Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America. I had met Wendy a few times, but I don’t think she remembered me. I introduced myself and I introduced her to my son, who didn’t know about Teach For America.

Well, Wendy turned on her two-minute elevator pitch. It was like she was telling the story for the first time. That was charisma -- the excitement about what she was doing. I don’t even think she knew he was a reporter. He was just my son. And I said, “That’s special.” These people -- social entrepreneurs like Wendy -- have this ability to get unbelievably excited about what they’re doing and transmit it to other people.