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New Daniels research seeks to spread the work of community organizations

Gia Nardini Headshot

Gia Nardini

Think about a company like McDonald’s, widely known for consistent branding and food at more than 38,000 locations around the world. About 93% of them are locally owned franchises.

Now think about the 1.3 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, 92% of which are small and community focused.

Gia Nardini, an assistant professor of marketing at the Daniels College of Business, compared the two business models and wondered: What’s the difference? What’s stopping community do-gooders from expanding their work to municipalities across the country?

“Not just because they could help more people,” Nardini explained, “but if you want to get the funding you need, a lot of times you have to demonstrate through metrics that you’re having success. The number one way to show success is the number of people you’re serving or helping.”

In new research, published this spring in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Nardini and her colleagues investigated how nonprofits can address societal challenges on a larger scale—and what’s stopping them from doing so now.

“We think of organizations growing in the way that Amazon, Google, McDonald’s have grown. That’s the gold standard, where we want to be if we’re starting an organization,” Nardini said. “That model of just growing very large very quickly does not really work for social impact organizations, especially because of the types of challenges they’re addressing and how those challenges differ, even for communities that are geographically adjacent. They can’t simply say, ‘OK, one size fits all.’”

Take poverty, for example, which could be rooted in any number of underlying local causes and nuanced community circumstances. And it could manifest itself as hunger, inadequate housing, racial inequities or health disparities.

In that sense, Nardini said, a smaller organization with a narrower focus could be a strength, rather than a weakness.

“We wanted to dig more deeply into that. How can we help the funding entities see the value in staying small?” Nardini said. “But also, how can we help these small organizations proliferate their ideas in a way that allows them to serve more people without compromising the attributes that allowed them to be successful within the communities they’re operating?”

To investigate, Nardini and her colleagues formed a research team that included several nonprofit leaders. Together, they interviewed other nonprofit leaders in communities around the country.

A chart explaining t-shaped scalingThe best way to grow, they concluded, was through a two-pronged approach known as “T-Shaped Scaling.” First, Nardini said, many organizations start by “scaling deep,” approaching a community with an open mind, identifying important stakeholders, incorporating their ideas and allowing them to help develop solutions. Doing so builds trust, Nardini found.

“The organization is demonstrating to the community that they’re here for them, they’re listening to them and they’re working with them to find solutions,” Nardini said. “Over time we find this culminates into successful addressing of whatever the challenge may be.”

From there, an organization can begin to branch out, or “scale wide.”

“They don’t necessarily strip away all of the context that allows them to be successful in their community and then try to plant this same idea in another community,” Nardini said. “Instead they find that their practices are transferrable—meaning they can be adapted and modified—however another organization might need and then implement these practices in the adapted and modified version.”

Doing so could require nonprofits to change their mindset, Nardini said, and see other organizations as cooperative partners instead of competition, even if they’re vying for the same funding dollars. Working as a team—sharing marketing materials and best practices—could provide an avenue to collaboratively pursue larger grants and establish an increased presence.

In the end, Nardini said, it’s about starting a conversation on how society and the nonprofit sector view success.

“I think a lot of times our minds go straight to those big companies,” as models of accomplishment, she said. “Instead, if we think about success as being truly transforming of a community, then we see value in these organizations that are deeply embedded in the community. That is success. It’s not just the organizations that are franchised across the U.S. If we are making changes in a community and positively impacting a single community, that is success.”