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Lessons on How to Scale

A good idea is worth sharing. That’s the basic premise behind bringing successful social innovations to scale: Once a program or project has been proven to work, why not use it in other communities?

The work of replicating a program in new locations, with new partners, isn’t easy, though. One winning example is LISC's network of Financial Opportunity Centers, which have gone from a handful of sites in Chicago to more than 71 centers in 23 cities.

At an FOC, a client receives integrated services helping with employment, improved financial condition and access to public benefits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Kevin Jordan, LISC’s senior vice president for national programs, has been responsible in his former role as the director of family income and wealth-building for overseeing the expansion of the FOC model. In this interview, he talks about how LISC approached the idea of scaling up and what his team plans next.


What did it take to expand the Financial Opportunity Center model?

One piece of the strategy that was incredibly important was the work led by Ricki Lowitz in Chicago with tracking data through a client-tracking system called Efforts to Outcomes. It provided information to help us learn what was working in the delivery of the model and to get rid of any practice that the data didn’t show was improving outcomes.

ETO helped us to improve the program delivery, and it allowed us to say, “See the model works, and here’s the data to prove it,” which was important as we reached out to new partners and locations.

Also, without the LISC infrastructure, this model doesn’t scale. Our local LISC offices were able to offer on-the-ground support to the agencies running FOCs and our national office provided support and technical assistance, as well.

This model was not for everyone, by the way. You could tell which were the organizations that really wanted to change their service delivery strategy and ultimately the outcomes they could achieve. For a local group to add the program, there had to be a willingness to accept new ways of working.

It sounds like you’re saying that taking the model to scale wasn’t just about “selling” the program to a new location. You were also seeing if the local organization was ready to be awarded a Financial Opportunity Center, almost like a job interview, where both parties are determining if it will work out. 

That’s right. We were definitely judging if this is a match in philosophies. We had to decide if where we’re going is where the organization wants to go. If they don’t want to change how they operate, it’s not a good match.

An example of this is Instituto [del Progresso] in Chicago, which has something like a $10 million budget and were successful at working with clients before they took on the model. So us offering $100,000 to implement the model is not enough on its own to make them change their client strategy.

But they said, “Adding a financial coach is going to improve what we do and help our clients.” They were a good match because they saw the value in the model and were willing to change to adopt it.

How much do you require a new location to keep a certain fidelity to your model? Is there much flexibility in how they open a Financial Opportunity Center?

We do have outcomes that we expect, and we have the tools to measure those outcomes. The only way to reach certain outcomes, like improvement of net income by clients, is by a high level of fidelity to the model.

The flipside, though, is that we allow people to grow into the model. We don’t go in and tell them how to run every aspect of the program.

For example, we always begin a center by facilitating a retreat where new centers identify their client flow, then the organizations come up with changes so that each family gets all three sets of services, and we work with them on how to do the documentation to measure that is happening.

We do not tell an agency how to change the client flow. But we know that the only way for people to succeed in this model is to receive all three sets of services. So we work with the agency on how to do it in a way that makes the most sense for their agency.

We have a point of view that this needs to work in the office where it’s being run. There are parameters, but it’s not a rigid program. We’re not McDonald’s. We don’t say everyone has to do the exact same thing in the exact same way.

Have the Financial Opportunity Centers reached the scale they can achieve? Or is there more to come?

Scale is so different depending on your perspective. We see thousands of nonprofits in the country that work on financial stability for people in their community. Some percentage of that group are good candidates for operating Financial Opportunity Centers. 

Think of it like this: A program that helps kids do better in school can be taken to scale by an agency in multiple communities and serve say 60,000 kids or 100,000 kids. That’s a lot!

But look at it another way, and that number is approximately how many students are in the Baltimore Public School system—and there are obviously many, many more students than that around the country in poor performing schools. So the scale has only gone so far.

By taking a model and helping many existing organizations throughout the country with existing client bases, histories, funding streams etc. improve their practice and be even more impactful with the clients they already serve, you can reach a larger scale at a cheaper cost. 

That’s where we need other partners. LISC has had a lot of success in scaling the Financial Opportunity Centers. But LISC is only in 31 cities.

We’re working now to grow beyond LISC. An example is our work with United Way, which has offices in 1,300 cities.

That’s requiring us to think about some new things, like how to get our data system in place outside the LISC system and what is the relationship with the local offices when we’re no longer funding the program in the same way.

You mentioned McDonald’s a while ago. Businesses expand and scale up all the time; are there lessons to be learned from the for-profit side?

The difference between scaling up a model vs. scaling up an organization is interesting.

When a community organization grows, it might go to another neighborhood or two, but it probably doesn’t expand to serve six other cities. That’s different than a store or a business that opens up new sites under same management. That idea—that an organization itself will scale up—isn’t well developed in the social sector.

That’s why infrastructure is so important when we scale up a model into a number of different organizations. It’s harder for us to manage the specifics, like we were discussing earlier, so an infrastructure plays part of that role to ensure there is fidelity.

And that’s a big reason we’re working with United Way. We’re not going to go out and work with each local CDC; that’s more than we have the capacity to do. We’re looking for local networks that will allow us to be successful in the next stage of scale.