Mulanje, Malawi

Smart Scaling: How Nonprofits Can Achieve Transformative Impact Through Growth

This new report examines One Acre Fund’s journey to reaching 1 million farmers and offers advice for social change organizations seeking to grow.

For nonprofits seeking to grow, scaling can be one of the biggest challenges to creating transformative societal change. While not all nonprofits need to expand (many hyper-local organizations do highly impactful work within their own communities), organizations with the express goal of scaling often find it difficult to grow beyond certain plateaus. This can be for many reasons – such as insufficient capital, difficulty finding good talent, or unforeseen challenges like COVID-19

A new report, Smart Scaling for Social Change Organizations, examines One Acre Fund’s approach to scaling after we reached the exciting milestone of serving 1 million farming families in 2019. Our path has not always been straight and easy – just this year we slowed our expansion pace due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, which spurred market shutdowns and movement restrictions that created financial pressure for many farm families. 

In the Smart Scaling report, we discuss a number of challenges that we have encountered since One Acre Fund was founded in 2006, as well as the criteria we set for deciding how and where to grow. The report, produced in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), includes the following guidance on our “checklist for growth”:

  • Set a bold goal. In 2010, just four years after One Acre Fund was founded and at a time when we were only reaching about 31,000 farmers, we set a goal that was on the edge of believability – by 2020, we would grow to serve 1 million families. Setting a bold goal and then reverse-engineering how to get there helped rally our team and create a more empowering culture.

  • Design a strong model. Developing a strong program model, talent model, and financial model are crucial for healthy growth. Scalability comes from good thinking on all three.

  • Prioritize efficiency and innovation. Most nonprofits have product innovations teams, but few have a dedicated innovations team for scaling. One Acre Fund’s “Program Design” team is focused on making our model more scalable, and has launched a number of initiatives (e.g. tablets for Field Officers) to make our operations more efficient.

  • Let impact guide: Growth is not meaningful in the absence of impact. Commitment to rigorous impact measurement helps ensure that our work is making a difference, and that we adapt to challenges and changing conditions as they arise.

  • Ensure healthy growth: One Acre Fund uses multiple frameworks to sketch out a healthy path for growth, considering both impact and costs. We take into account our program’s financial health, systems performance, financial controls, and holistic impact when determining expansion pace.

The magnitude of social problems facing the world today require bold, scalable solutions. As One Acre Fund looks ahead to the next decade, we hope to continue pursuing aggressive growth. Hunger and extreme poverty remain widespread in smallholder farming communities, yet we believe these problems are solvable within our lifetimes. We hope that the lessons contained in this report will encourage other organizations to take an enterprising approach to scaling, and deliver impactful models to many more people who need them most.

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You can also find an abridged version of this report here.

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