For a number of reasons, scale is on Generation Citizen’s collective mind right now. As we head into our fourth year, and have programs operating in four sites, the question of how to expand our programming is becoming more pressing, and will be the leading topic of conversation in an upcoming Board of Directors meeting. There have been so many articles written by folks much smarter than me on the concept of scale, so I don’t mean to replicate, or to try to provide new knowledge on the subject, but I thought it might be interesting to explore how we are thinking about it at GC, and to get feedback from others. So, feel free to send on opinions – we’d love to hear what you think. So, here are some basic principles that we’re thinking about:
1) We have made a decision to take GC national: This is an important distinction to start with. There are many great organizations that stay local, and scale through deepening their impact in specific sites. We want to go national. There should not be a value designation (I do not think going national makes us a “better” organization), but it is important to state. We feel that youth civic disengagement, and the lack of an effective action civics education is a national problem and that few organizations are tackling the issue effectively.
I will say that I have found that an unfortunate tension exists between hyper-local organizations, who feel that the best way to have impact is to focus exclusively locally, and national organizations, who sometimes export their programmatic model to cities without taking into account local context. I really want, and hope, that GC can take into account local context while expanding. We are trying hard to do this by building local relationships, fitting differently into school districts, and immersing ourselves in the local political sphere. We also ensure that we place local staff in each of our sites.
2) Ultimately, scale needs to happen through systemic change: This year, GC is working with about 10,000 students, and within two years, we hope that figure is about 20,000 students per year. That’s a lot of students. In the scheme of things, it’s also nothing (there are about a million students just in New York City). To that end, it’s really important that we focus on systems change, rather than just increasing the number of students we are working with.
For GC, that’s showing that action civics is something that every student in America should receive as a vital part of their education, not just as a cute program if there is time in the school day. We want districts to figure out how to implement their own action civics programs, and teachers to receive exceptional professional development in the discipline. This is a long way away, but this is ultimately where we want to get to.
3) The “depth vs. breadth” argument is a false dichotomy: Whenever I hear arguments about programs going to scale, it is always pitched as in “either the program can go deeper (i.e., expand within existing sites) or it can go wider (i.e., expand to other sites).” I think this is a completely false dichotomy. Yes, GC absolutely has to worry about the quality of its program, and if we expand too quickly, we will lose some of our ability to ensure fidelity of implementation.
But at the same time, I very much subscribe to the theory that an organization can learn, and improve its existing programs, by growing. For example, GC expanded to the Bay Area this year. It has been challenging- having an office three time zones away does create obstacles. However, the site has been an overwhelming positive already. We have been forced to shore up our systems and standardize our programming. The expansion has provided us with a national legitimacy. And it’s actually allowed us to get funds to help in other sites. Going wider has actually allowed us to go deeper in existing sites.
Along those same lines, it is important to justify growth. I find that sometimes organizations grow because they can grow, rather than justifying scale. A friend once told me that if we wanted, GC could probably expand to, say, South Africa, and get a lot of attention through the flashy site. But that would do nothing for our impact, or larger systems change. We don’t want to grow for growth-sake.
4) There are a myriad of ways to scale: This is actually the toughest one for us to figure out at GC. Right now, we have a core program- we train college volunteers to partner with secondary school teachers to teach our action civics curriculum. To date, we have grown by replicating that model, and taking it to different cities across the country. We could continue to do that.
Or we could scale by focusing on growing an online curriculum we just build. Or we could partner with existing organizations and train them to implement our curriculum throughout the country. Or we could create a professional development institute for teachers that focuses on action civics. Or we could focus on advocacy initiatives that create a larger demand for action civics. The possibilities are endless. And we need to remain nimble to account for these possibilities. What our plan calls for today might be irrelevant tomorrow.
And that’s what makes this endeavor so exciting. There is no right answer on how to scale Generation Citizen. All we know is that we truly believe in our mission- empowering young people to become active citizens, and we truly believe that every young person in this country should get an action civics education. So over the next year, and five years, and twenty years, we’re going to figure out how to reach more students while maintaining an excellent program. It’s quite the challenge. What do you think we should do?
Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.