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Better Ways to Bring Social Programs to Scale

January 11, 2013

(Chris Walker is director of research and assessment for the Local Initiative Support Corporation. A longer version of this post was published online in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in December.)

Walker_chris_headshotIncreased demand for social programs that are simultaneously threatened with budget cuts creates a need to not only ramp up proven innovations, but also to be smarter and more effective in doing so. In 2011, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), a national community development intermediary dedicated to the comprehensive revitalization of low-income neighborhoods, leveraged an investment from the Social Innovation Fund to further expand its Financial Opportunity Center (FOC) program. LISC recently undertook a thorough study of its expansion of the FOC model to identify which elements and strategies made it work, and how they might help similar organizations.

Financial Opportunity Centers help low-income families by offering a suite of counseling services, including financial coaching to support basic budgeting and credit repair; advice about how to get and keep a good job; and assistance in identifying and applying for public benefits. Early results have been promising -- the program has gone from four original sites in Chicago to sixty-six centers nationwide.

The study revealed some important takeaways.

First, successful scaling of the program requires a certain amount of standardization. While granting some flexibility, LISC works hard to maintain the integrity of the core FOC model.

Second, infrastructure is critical and requires conscious investment and development. LISC has continued to invest in program-delivery processes, protocols, and standards; performance measurement; direct technical assistance and peer-to-peer learning approaches; and resource generation.

Third, scaling can only happen through a deliberate and strategic rollout. The SIF funding enabled LISC to formalize its program expansion and build the national structure needed to ensure a disciplined process.

That said, certain aspects of our scaling process are unique. The FOC model demands client participation and changes in behavior, meaning some customization is necessary. It also varies from community to community, and thus entails constant monitoring and adjustment. Few organizations can go this alone, which is why LISC's local and national infrastructure is so critical.

Successful scaling ultimately requires sustainability; the current fiscal crisis underscores that need. As the FOC model will always rely on some subsidies, we also measure success in how well the legal and administrative structure of the mainstream workforce system incorporates our approach. Only when our model becomes part of the policy mainstream can we claim to have fully gone to scale.

-- Chris Walker


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