Nonprofit quarterly: Scale and sustainability—What’s a funder to do?

By Carina Wong, K-12 Deputy Director, for Nonprofit Quarterly

Whether you work at a small operating foundation or for the world’s largest grantmaking one, “scale” and “sustainability” are two words that likely have dominated more than a few staff meetings. That’s not surprising, since both are important indicators of an investment’s impact. But how do we decide whether something we fund is scalable and sustainable?

Five years ago, I ran the Chez Panisse Foundation, an organization in Berkeley, California, that helps young people connect what they eat to the health of their environment. Our goals for The Edible Schoolyard were ambitious: to redesign school lunch programs and create kitchen gardens in every school in America. The program’s founder, author and chef Alice Waters, built a model program that integrated academic curriculum with hands-on learning. Holding to very specific design principles, Waters carefully considered every detail, from the way children worked together in the garden, to how they cleaned up, to what they talked about while chopping vegetables. Today, there are only two official edible schoolyards, and the foundation (now called The Edible Schoolyard Project) continues to fund the original program at a Berkeley middle school.
Was our work a success or a failure?
It depends. If the goal of the Chez Panisse Foundation was to replicate the model “as is,” we failed utterly. But if our goal was to adopt, adapt, or even reinvent the model, our work was a wild success. The Edible Schoolyard created a movement that continues to grow. It has spawned thousands of kitchen gardens and inspired dozens of urban school districts to improve meals for their students. Today, all Berkeley public schools have kitchen-garden programs, and all students get freshly cooked meals with healthy local ingredients. In short, we transformed the system in one school district and created a model for the country.
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