Scaling Up Social Change

Jesse Littlewood's picture

Director of Business Development


Scaling Up Social Change

Is there a secret of scale?
From climate change to world hunger to inequality, the need has never been greater for social change organizations to have a larger impact. Nonprofit organizations need to become bigger, faster and stronger. They need to “scale up” to meet the ever-accelerating challenges facing our planet and our society.
Every day at EchoDitto, I help organizations use technology to increase their scale and impact. I have yet to find an organization that thinks they have grown as large as they’d like, that thinks they are making “enough” of an impact, or that would reject additional supporters and donors.
I recently moderated a discussion with three writers and progressive activists who have written about how to scale social change:
Peter Murray’s Stanford Social Innovation Review article “The Secret of Scale” describes how some of the largest civic organizations build membership and sway public policy. Dave Karpf’s book The MoveOn Effect explored the rise of “netroots” organizations that have grown exponentially in size in just a few years. I recently moderated an online discussion with Murray and Karpf about their different perspectives, and throughout the wide-ranging conversation, we found some key points of agreement on how nonprofits can scale up, and where technology can make a difference. Below are some highlights from the conversation, and the full video at the end of this post.
Peter is concerned with what he calls "functional organizing.” 
Functional organizing takes place when an organization delivers a set of benefits and services for its members that simultaneously drive membership growth and raise money through purchases of the benefits and services. AARP, the NRA and AAA are three of the most visible examples. These groups provide services to their members that deepen engagement and affinity with the organization. When these organizations engage in advocacy, they can mobilize their members because they have formed a deep connection with the organization.
This helps organizations scale up because they don’t lead with advocacy, but with services, which allows them to recruit from a wider population than self-described “activists.” People join AAA for the roadside assistance, AARP for the magazine, and the NRA for the “Accidental Death and Dismemberment” coverage.
Functional organizing isn’t without its challenges. First, your audience has to have common lifestyle needs you can actively support. Second, you have to be able to run the business functions of providing the benefits and services, adding overhead for your organization.
Here Peter talks about how organizations can actually use functional organizing.
Dave Karpf’s book explores what he calls the “netroots model” of organization building. Dave thinks that there is an “alternative path to scale” as exemplified bv groups like MoveOn.
How do you find your organization’s path to scale? To scale up your organization, your focus should start with what unites these two approaches: a deep understanding of who your audience is, what is relevant to them, and how you can serve their needs. Both Peter and Dave agreed that deep listening is a crucial component to growing to scale.
At EchoDitto, we’ve found that one of the most powerful tools for an organization is a powerful constituent relationship management system (CRM). Without a powerful CRM, you won’t be able to effectively test your outreach, and testing is a critical way to listen to your membership.
Are there tangible products that you could provide to your members through functional organizing? Are there low-cost digital opportunities that could provide utility to your members, like a petition platform? EchoDitto has found success when organizations leverage open-source technology (like the code from the’s We The People petition platform) to cost-effectively build digital tools.
The conversation with Peter, Dave and Nicco touched on a number of important ways that organizations can scale up their efforts, and I have highlighted just a section of them in this post. I left the conversation inspired and excited about the opportunities to scale up our social change efforts in the future. And in particular I was convinced that the real secret of scale is developing a deeper understanding of what motivates your membership. With that understanding, organizations can make educated decisions on how to best pursue the path to scale that is appropriate to what your members want. The largest and most successful organizations have reached their size and scale because they have found ways to make their organization deeply relevant to the lives of their membership. That starts with deep listening.
The technology to listen to your membership has never been as powerful or as affordable as today. The organizations that effectively scale up their social change efforts will be the ones that listen the deepest, and turn insights into relevancy for their members.
Visit the Google Plus Page of the event to see some of the questions from the audience -- with answers from Dave, Peter and Nicco. And please leave a comment if you have your own ideas on how social change organizations can effectively scale up.

What's next? 

A critical part of scaling up your social change effort is building an effective digital team. A rock-solid digital team is critical to take advantage of the "netroots" model of scaling up, but even the "functional organizing" model will be more effective when using digital outreach strategies. We'll be focusing on how to build a digital team during the next Scaling Up Social Change event, scheduled for Monday, March 24, from 2 - 3:00 PM ET. Our panelists are:



You can view the full video of the December 2013 Scaling Up conversation with Dave Karpf, Peter Murray, Nicco Mele and Jesse Littlewood here: 


I see you like to read printed material. You should check out Nicco's book The End of Big: