Following is a guest post from Darrell Scott, a former EPIP member who currently works as an Online Organizing Associate at Accelerate Change in Washington, DC. Darrell also sits on the board of YNPN. His interests lie in new models for civic engagement, social innovation, and movement building.
I spent two years in philanthropy, working as a fellow at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, NC. I learned a ton, specifically about North Carolina’s funding landscape, statewide strategies for social change, and how to support racial equity in the nonprofit sector. Beyond my lessons learned, I always had the opportunity to meet brilliant minds from across the state. Through my participation in EPIP, however, I joined a community of emerging leaders from around the country. One of the key things I heard consistently were funders struggling to help grantees grow to scale and become financially self-sustainable.
In my current role at Accelerate Change, I’ve been thinking about scale in a broader way. Recently, our founder Peter Murray, was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, where he shows that there is a secret of scale. He found the secret after two years of researching the organizing, membership, and business models of more than 50 large-scale membership civic organizations. The groups ranged from US institutions like the NRA, AARP, megachurches, unions, and trade associations to international organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Students, the Mondragon workers cooperative in Spain, and consumer cooperatives in England.
His article, The Secret of Scale, explains that the largest membership organizations in the world all share the same organizing model: functional organizing. Functional organizations attract members with benefits and services and then build on this base to advocate for their members. From churches to AARP to YMCAs to labor unions, all the major membership organizations in the world are functional organizations—providing material and social benefits for members, whether that be discounts, fellowship, business services, or collective bargaining. The article shows that once these functional organizations have developed deep, trusted relationships with their members, they can activate them for civic engagement.
Through services and benefits, functional organizations also develop robust revenue models. Since funders rarely plan to financially support groups in perpetuity, this is something to consider. Grantees can become financially self-sustainable. The most robust revenue engines for civic organizations are natural outgrowths of the benefits and services that drive their membership. Although the dues that members pay to gain access to the benefits and services generate significant revenue, most scaled-up civic organizations go beyond member dues by monetizing benefits and services so as to generate income every time services are used.
Given the points made in the article, my main tip for unlocking the secret of scale is for funders to build an appetite for and to fund experiments. Consider working with your staff and board to develop grantmaking principles that allow grantees to experiment and try out new models for building membership. While one could do this by providing general operating support, another route may be using technical assistance dollars for exploring scale opportunities.
At Accelerate Change, we help funders test new models for large-scale, self-sustainable citizen organizing initiatives. Our end-goal is to catalyze citizen organizing initiatives that engage millions of Americans in advancing social change.
EPIP has social change and innovation at the forefront of its mind. And, as an EPIP alum, I hope the article helps you unlock the secret of scale at your organizations. If you want to learn more about Accelerate Change, visit our website.