The Simple Technology That Empowered a Small Nonprofit to Scale

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This post is brought to you by our partner, the Collaborative Exchange, the online publication of the CLASSY Awards that explores important ideas and trends in innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship around social solutions.

Scaling in the social sector requires a comprehensive approach towards replication. Rather than just replicating the components of a solution exactly as they were initially implemented, the impact of that solution must also be replicated.

Replicating solutions that are not just sustainable, but apply to new locations and larger audiences is not easy. The process requires sufficient resources to maintain quality, multi-stakeholder support and buy-in, thorough planning and assessment, and context of new locations – which may include new populations and varying social, environmental and political factors. To this end, many solutions in the social sector fail to successfully go to scale.

But identifying and scaling solutions is critical. As Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has pointed out, “Solutions to many of the world’s most difficult social problems don’t need to be invented, they need only to be found, funded, and scaled.”

Selected as a 2014 CLASSY Awards Top 5 Nominee and one of the top 25 “must see” entrepreneurial education and training programs in the world by World Bank, Interise is one such solution.

Interise works to stimulate economic revitalization in lower-income communities. Through job creation, wealth generation, and the fostering of community leadership, their StreetWise MBA™ program enables established small business owners, who have already demonstrated success, to further strengthen and grow their businesses.

The concept began in Boston in 2004, kicking off with an inaugural event that included 14 urban small business owners. The experience helped gather key learnings and data, and following it, program leaders brought in subject matter experts to create the StreetWise ‘MBA’™ curriculum.

Today, the StreetWise ‘MBA’™ is a nine-month certificate program that facilitates access to new markets, capital and knowledge through small business executive education, peer-to-peer learning, coaching and networking opportunities. Program participants invest 100 working hours on their businesses and learning the behaviors needed to continue to grow their businesses effectively. The small business development strategy provides the discipline and structure that these business owners need to step back and work on their business, rather than in their business.

In addition, small business owners are provided post-graduate opportunities for them to continue to engage with each other and with Interise. Their progress is monitored for quality assurance and evaluation of the impact of the program, which helps Interise to conduct research and advocacy around small business issues.

Through the program, Interise has helped to build stronger and more economically resilient communities, characterized by a stronger small business community, an expanded pool of community leaders, increased civil engagement and local economic integration to regional, national and international markets.

In 2008, the organization won a bidding process to become the instructional provider for the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Emerging Leaders 200 Initiative (e200), bringing the SWMBA to 200 entrepreneurs in 10 cities nationwide. The contract has been renewed and expanded every year since, reaching nearly 1,300 entrepreneurs in 27 cities. In the first 4 years, Interise went from one city in MA to 25 cities nationwide with 2/3 of cities with participant wait-lists and 300 organizational partnership prospects under cultivation.

Scale was always part of Interise’s endgame, and CEO Jean Horstman had built the model with scale in mind from the beginning. With demonstrated success and rapid growth in the early years, the challenge was to not repeat the same mistakes that other organizations had made in their attempts to scale.

“I had previously worked with three other nonprofits that were scaling nationally, and observed first-hand the organizational stresses that accompanied this growth. The process was time-consuming and contributed to frequent staff turnover, which in turn frustrated the staff that remained as they tried to maintain the pace of growth,” said CEO Jean Horstman.

With this insight, she became interested in exploring a way to scale mission impact while building an organization that was stable and where people worked for a longer period of time.

“I was also struck by the lack of wholesalers in the social change market. The field seemed to be retail-centric,” continued Horstman. “As I thought about how Interise, which was planning to expand in a very crowded retail field, could fill a wholesale niche, I was reminded that software (as well as apps), not hardware, was where business models were shifting.”

Creating a program (software) that could be licensed to other small business providers (hardware) to use in their communities emerged as Interise’s scaling strategy. So they decided to white label their curriculum and license it out to partners. The practice, familiar to corporations, isn’t used as frequently in the social sector. For Interise, it came down to keeping it local. “Licensing the StreetWise ‘MBA’™ means that what is best done locally is done by our partners—they staff their program, recruit and select their local business owners, and set and retain their local brand,” said Horstman.

Interise provides license partners with use of the curriculum, training and ongoing support for the program managers and instructors, program monitoring and impact evaluation, and guidance on public relations and program design. The licensing model is cost-effective, adaptable and easily scalable, and achieves expanded delivery while ensuring quality. In 2013, at a program cost of $2,670 per participant, each new job created costed roughly $1,250. In a recent proposal to a partner this year, the costs directly associated with their license for creating one new job were $557. The range varies with each partnership based on the number of businesses and the local business environment.

“Our licensing model enables us to scale and do so in a manner that provides localized programs through our partners, who know the local communities much better than we ever will. As a result, they can ensure that the StreetWise ‘MBA’™ curriculum is maximized based on the make-up and needs of a community. At the same time, we provide our partners with a program that works and build their capacity for success and local reputation for excellence through our co-branding strategy,” said Horstman.

Today, through the U.S. SBA Emerging Leaders Initiative, the StreetWise ‘MBA’™ curriculum has been brought to 900 business owners in 27 communities nationally. Other notable partners include the New York City’s Department of Small Business Services, the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the City of Portland OR Procurement Services and University Circle Inc. in Cleveland, OH.

Over the next five years, Interise will continue to scale by pursuing partnerships that build statewide and regional networks, and where Interise can build a large footprint through partners in state and local governments, ‘anchor’ institutions, minority business associations and community-based economic development organizations.

The 5-year plan for Interise includes:

  • Continuing to scope and scale through licenses, contract and other partnership opportunities.
  • Launching initiatives and developing ways to continue to engage StreetWise ‘MBA’™ graduates with each other and with Interise. Building systems to connect participants to the resources that support their business growth plans, and create a strong network of peer mentoring and support.
  • Engaging in research for the purpose of sharing insights and knowledge about established small businesses, their owners and communities.
  • Reinforcing their infrastructure and organizational capacity in order to successfully expand, through developing board and staff and streamlining systems and processes.
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