Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Scalability for Social Enterprises and Non-Profits

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

This is an attempt to define how social enterprises can scale their businesses. This is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive resource!

In a technology or for-profit setting, scalability is more obvious – the internet provides the perfect scalable platform due to small costs of good sold (COGS), approaching zero – but what does it mean to design a business model for social enterprise or non-profits, where profit and technology might not be the only considerations?

Instead social impact is what they should strive for, in a financially sustainable way.

What is scalability?

A buzz-term in the business world, but rather new to the non-profit world, scalability implies that the underlying business model of an organization has the potential for large growth in a cost-efficient manner. Scalability can be both a tangible concept, as well as a metaphor, so that is why it is sometimes hard to define.

Scalability can apply to a wide variety of business settings, but the concept is consistent; if a company can increase their “volume” (this could be selling more, increasing revenues, or expanding operations somehow), without impacting the contribution margin (= revenue – variable costs), then this is considered “scalable.” For a business to be scalable, incremental costs must be decreasing — ideally approaching zero (in the case of an internet distribution channel). This means that the cost of each incremental dollar in revenue must be going down.

Source 1:

Other ways to say this include:
• Increased revenues cost less to deliver than current revenues
• The operating margin increases as the company’s revenue grows
• Small variable costs

The key to scalable business models is to have small Costs Of Goods Sold (COGS), and to get a demand driving revenues up.

There are limits to scalability and at a certain threshold revenue volume, an organization will not be scalable and will have to address infrastructure issues through investment in operations, new technologies, new distribution, etc. For example, a given piece of equipment may have capacity from 1-1000 users, and beyond 1000 users, additional equipment is needed or performance will decline (variable costs will increase and reduce contribution margin).

Top 10 Most Important Business Model Criteria for Social Enterprises and Non-Profits to Scale

You may still be wondering “what does that all mean for me in my social enterprise or non-profit”? Well, here are some simple general principles that all organizations should strive for:

1. Simplicity – Complex businesses MUST become simple before they can scale. If anyone in the chain of suppliers, employees, management, sales, customers, donors and investors can’t explain simply what the company does — IT DOES NOT SCALE!!! Ex. Think Kiva (featured below). Hint: it scales.

2. Find Your Champions – You need local people to see the value of your idea to their community. Foster and maintain relationships with these people and make sure that you have a plan for successful champions to become integrated into your organization somehow. They will recruit others and outsource a lot of the work that you won’t be able to do. Ex. The Green Belt Movement gave numerous opportunities for dedicated community members to plug into the organization, even providing paid positions to the most promising champions. The Green Belt Movement is responsible for planting over 40 million trees in Kenya!

3. Innovative Partnerships – tapping into an established network, such as partnering with an organization that has a great reach and credibility is a solid strategy for scaling up. This may be difficult, but it should be a part of your strategy if you want to expand beyond the local level. Also, look at cost-savings through public-private partnerships, such as working with the cities or local government. One side benefit is that this will increase your credibility too. Ex. Wangari Maathai, noble peace prize recipient, partnered with a national womens organization of Kenya in the early days of the Green Belt Movement, VisionSpring with BRAC.

4. Leverage Research & Science – base your programs on solid research. Engage sociologists, psychologists or scientists in your program design. You may also be able to use your programs as research in themselves; this can be a powerful way to show your program effectiveness.

5. Stack Functions & Create Systems – Stacking functions, a buzzword from the world of permaculture design, refers to designing your internal processes so that you can perform one action that will be indefinitely reproducible or serve numerous functions; make sure you keep this in mind from the get-go so that you have a system for reusing almost every piece of work that you do. For example, everything that you create internally should serve multiple uses (I learned this one from an innovative consultant) — blog it, make it into a video, have it syndicated, write a testimonial, etc.

6. Act Like a Private. Be nimble, find the “bright spots” and go with what’s working. – act like a private business, so that you are not just an idealistic bunch of people shooting in the dark. Be quick enough to change strategic direction, if necessary.

7. Get in touch with your customers – talk to them, interview those who you will be serving. Find out what concerns them and how things could be better. Often this essential step is overlooked as a social venture comes up with a “solution” and then launches it to the public, without intimately involving them from the beginning.

8. Tap into the support of microcontributors. CROWDSOURCE. – think about Kiva, MYC4, and DonorsChoose.

9. Train the trainers – the more that you can train others to thrive, the better. VisionSpring equips their women entrepreneurs with a “starter kit” for providing eyecare, trains them on how to use it, and lets them run with it.

10. Be Open Source and Transparent – share your findings and knowledge with others.


The Quality of Life Foundation, planting seeds of happiness!

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

The Quality of Life Foundation

I have just started working for a great organzation called The Quality of Life Foundation with my good friend, Lee Hwang. The Quality of Life Foundation is a San Francisco-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit startup that seeks to engage volunteers to plant trees in public spaces in order to build stronger and healthier individuals, communities, and ecosystems. The foundation’s mission is to build a mindful and compassionate community that values and protects the planet’s natural ecosystems in service to humanity and all life on Earth.

Sound good?

We believe that there has been a spiritual underpinning to most great grassroots social movements. For example, Gandhi’s movement had a spiritual underpinning as did the Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement. The environmental movement has gained a huge amount of traction on a global scale in the last 5-10 years but much of this has been inspired by talks of gloom and doom. Fear and disaster have been motivations ahead of joy and abundance. Our foundation hopes to use the joy of tree planting as a way to build community and bring people back to themselves and closer to their loved ones.

Our main goal right now is to focus on a scale-able model that can be replicated and eventually spread to other cities, and eventually internationally. But we are very focused on making it work here in beautiful San Francisco first. Currently, we have our sights set on schools and open public spaces in or near urban areas where tree-planting is needed and can bring joy and meaning to young and old alike. We hope that both spiritual communities and schools are ripe for what we hope to facilitate.

If you would like to join the mailing list to find out about future tree planting events, please email me at matt at

You can read more about the foundation at and read a recent interview with Lee Hwang, executive director.

The Quality of Life Foundation
The Quality of Life Foundation

I’m blogging at the Net Impact Conference for!

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

I am excited to be covering this event for  I am hoping to cover bigger trends surrounding lifecycle analysis, supply chain and water scarcity/quality. Please contact me if you have any ideas for juicy stories!


How can a flock of birds give us hope?

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Flock of BirdsHave you ever seen a flock of birds or a shoal of fish change direction very quickly? This is called an emergent behavior; according to Wickipedia: An emergent behavior or emergent property can appear when a number of simple entities (agents) operate in an environment, forming more complex behaviors as a collective.

Think of how we are becoming more and more interconnected. My social networks are growing everyday. While I am not totally sold on social networks, they are setting us up so that we will be able to quickly organize and coordinate.

We may not think that our society is moving quickly enough towards solving the problems of our time, but look at the birds and get inspired!


Cool Rainwater Harvesting Promotional Video…

Monday, December 15th, 2008

We need more efforts like this here in the US. This one was done for India.

Anyone want to put together an ad campaign?


Can We Talk About This? –> “Greensumption”

Friday, October 31st, 2008

Watch this video called “Greensumption”. This is something that needs to be discussed. We think we have it all figured out, don’t we???


The Vice of Capitalism

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth.”

— Oystein Dahle, retired VP of Esso Norway


The Future of Electricity: The “Smart Grid”

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008


Imagine a utility grid that is smart, distributed and more localized. What does that mean? Well, think electricity combined with the technology and structure of the Internet.

In our current electricity grid, the electrons flow from huge, centralized power plants, sometimes quite a distance from the end user, and simply go one way; picture thousands of one-way streets that branch off of a freeway. It hasn’t changed fundamentally for more than a hundred years, except for the capacity of the grid, that is, an increase in the number of power plants. But, the grid is outdated and in need of an update.

There are fundamentally two major problems with the existing grid:

1. Current transmission lines are incapable of transmitting electrons very long distances. For example, we cannot get our electricity in California from a wind farm in Texas.

2. Inaccuracy of the real-time usage data which makes it hard to predict patterns and troubleshoot.

The loss of electrons in transmission is something that only a technological breakthrough will be able to fix. We will have to wait and see on this one. But this is a long way off considering that the transmission lines will have to be replaced.

Now, what if the intelligence and structure of the Internet was a model for our electricity grid? Well, suddenly power companies would be able to track with accuracy, how much power was being used and where. Currently, much of this data is vague and inaccurate. For example, when there is a downed power line, the utility must wait for a blackout or for someone to call it in to diagnose the problem. What’s more, thousands of homes can go out when there is just one problem on the line. In the new grid, troubleshooting would not be a problem.

This new “smart-grid” would be controlled by thousands of wireless transmitters that could “talk” to each other and give the utility accurate data on real-time energy usage. This has many added benefits including:

  • Empowering the customers and utility with real-time data.
  • Better troubleshooting.
  • More efficient use of the power load.
  • Less prone to storms and terrorist attacks.

With this accurate information, the utility could begin to more efficiently handle the power loads during peak times. For example, the new smart-grid would be able to turn up the thermostats in thousands of homes by one degree in the middle of summer. Collectively this would make a huge difference in power needs, but on a user-level this would hardly be noticeable. One of the more interesting areas is the “smart appliances” that would be able to power on and off according to the power needs of the grid. Think of a washing machine that turned off on-demand by the power companies if you weren’t using it.

It is amazing that the grid has not changed much since the times of Thomas Edison. This is a huge growth area and very exciting when you consider that much of this will be powered by renewable energy and distributed. Traditionally, the electricity industry is very slow to change, considering the infrastructure changes that are required. However, the “smart grid” will soon be a common household phrase.


A Gold Medal for Banning Plastic Bags?

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

China is often perceived as a major polluter on the world stage, sacrificing the environment for rapid economic growth. This perception is often buttressed by images of polluted rivers and smog-infested landscapes.

In some ways, however, China is way ahead of the ball in protecting the environment. One prime example: China just placed a nationwide ban on plastic bags. The move is designed to prevent litter and save millions of barrels of oil each year. In a country where up to 3 billion plastic bags are used each day, the significance of this legislation is huge.

By comparison, the U.S. is still struggling to move away from plastic bags. San Francisco banned plastic bags last year, and last month Los Angeles became the second city in the U.S. to enact a plastic bag ban.

Certainly, change can sometimes be easier accomplished when dictated by an authoritarian government such as China’s. The beauty of our democracy, and the reason most of us would prefer to live in the U.S. than China, is that we can all play a part in making change. Frustratingly, though, this can all too often lead to political gridlock, or the hijacking of our future by narrow business interests.

The challenge is on. Let’s show the world that our democracy can bring about the changes that are needed for a sustainable future.

The spark that started in SF and LA needs to move across the country. Talk to your friends, family, and neighbors about ways to reduce or eliminate the use of plastic bags. Express your opinion in your local newspaper, and persuade your city council or state legislature that this change is needed. Our future depends on it.


10 Easy Ways to Save Water

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008
  1. Give your sprinkler time off. Most lawns and gardens get 20-50 percent more water than they really need. You can cut watering times 2 to 5 minutes for every 10 minutes you water and still have a healthy landscape.
  2. Water while you sleep. Water only in the early morning or at night when evaporation is at its lowest.
  3. Water wetter. Install a “smart” controller, available at an irrigation supply house. This device automatically tells your irrigation system how much to water.
  4. If it’s broke, fix it. Check for leaks, pipe breaks or clogged sprinklers and replace or repair if necessary.
  5. Replace outdated, inefficient irrigation equipment. Save money through your local landscaping rebate program, if applicable.
  6. Shower shorter. Install a water-efficient showerhead that uses 2.5 gallons/minute or less.
  7. No drip policy. Because they’re “on” 24/7, leaky faucets, toilets, and showerheads can waste a lot of water.
  8. Flush with pride. Check with your municipality for local rebates to install qualified 1.2 gallons-per-flush toilets.
  9. Keep it clean & Get green. Use the energy-saving cycle when washing clothes. Use cold water. Rebates are available when you buy a high-efficiency washer.
  10. Fill ‘er up. Run your dishwasher on the energy-saving cycle and only run full loads.

Check out H20 Conserve for tons of tips and tricks for saving water as well as calculating you water footprint.