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Net Impact: Scaling Nonprofits

I arrived at Net Impact Philadelphia with a duffel bag, laptop bag and an umbrella only to discover the Wharton did not offer coat or bag check – though they did loop a goody bag on my one free hand and slung a free t-shirt over my shoulder.  With over 2,000 attendees, the conference was beyond capacity.  This posed some logistical problems, but it was a huge testimony to the dedication of students and professionals to creating environmental and social value in their business enterprises.

After the opening keynote, I headed to the first session of the day – Scaling Nonprofits.  (Choosing break-out sessions is harder than you might think: the conference guide book provided 140+ pages of descriptions and information about the speakers).

I choose the scaling panel largely because of my interest in panelist William Foster’s philosophy about the need for philanthropies to reward high achieiving nonprofits with growth capital (I wrote a few months ago about William’s thoughts on this topic here.) In addition to Bill Foster, a Partner at Bridgespan, Mora Segal, Chief Strategy Officer at College Summit and Aaron Hurst, founder and CEO of Taproot Foundation also spoke.

The panelists discussed the dynamics of the philanthropic sector, specifically addressing fact that the environment is not conducive to financing the best and brightest nonprofits out there.  Bill pointed out that there are only 144 nonprofits that have reached $50 million in size, and only 10 nonprofits that have raised growth capital funds.

“There is a limit to what philanthropy can do,” said Mora, who mentioned that College Summit just reached the $20 million dollar mark in large part because of a school fee system that covers the organization’s variable costs.  College Summit started a growth capital fund five years ago and successfully raised $15 million in the first six months.

“We need to talk about how we get foundations to stop giving inefficiently,” said Aaron, who likened the multitude of nonprofits with similar missions to the hundreds of Chinese restaurants across New York City. “All the restaurants serve dumplings, lomein”…to be efficient, “they should all be one Panda Express.”

Some may disagree with Aaron’s proposed monopolization of Chinatown, but his point in well taken.  The philanthropic sector could improve the net social impact by rewarding mergers and partnerships between nonprofits with similar competitive advantages who realize they could achieve economies of scale by working together.

Hopefully College Summit and others who are raising growth funds, like VisionSpring, will continue to speak about their ability to overcome some of the barriers to achieving scale posed by the current philanthropy model. It’s still early to tell if the growth capital model will work for all nonprofits, regardless of their mission, but it’s certainly encouraging to see the impact organizations of those who have been successful in crossing the ramp-up threshold.

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