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Chronicle of Philanthropy: How Small Groups Reach Millions

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PARTNERSHIP: Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, is working with the Y to expand the reach of its successful summer learning program. Here, students in a BELL summer program in Queens, N.Y., mix in some dance practice.Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, runs a program to halt the "summer slide" in math and reading - and even increases those skills.

Published April 4, 2016

By Ben Gose

The Y has long worked with millions of youths in summer programs for the same purpose, but none have matched BELL's consistent success.

The two groups embarked on a partnership in 2011 in which BELL trains and certifies Ys throughout the country to deliver the BELL summer program. The Y partnership started small, but it is expected to reach 5,000 students at 70 sites this summer, accounting for more than a third of all students participating in the BELL program. Y officials hope to provide the program to 50,000 students by 2021 - and even that could be just a start for the Y, which serves 9 million children a year.

"In the back of our minds, the idea of bringing this program to millions is driving us," says Rebecca Kelley, the national director of the Y's programs to close the academic achievement gap. "We want to scale this really well."

Many nonprofits have been experimenting for nearly two decades with taking high-performing programs "to scale." The idea of expanding promising programs to serve exponentially larger groups of people has had its ups and downs since it burst onto the nonprofit scene 20 years ago as the next big thing.

For those that are sticking with the strategy, many are finding that a partnership with a larger organization is the best path to big results.

Jeffrey Bradach, co-founder of the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consulting group in Boston that works with many fast-growing charities, says the right partnerships can help nonprofits achieve "transformative scale" - a term that distinguishes real progress from incremental gains.

BELL hopes eventually to reach enough low-income and minority students through the Y partnership to make a national impact on the achievement gap - even though the approach requires giving up some control and could jeopardize the consistency of BELL's results.

"It's saying, ‘This is not all about BELL - this is about impact,'" Mr. Bradach says.

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