Innovation in Action

The First “Transition to Scalability” Cohort: Three Years Later

Our initial Transition to Scalability (TTS) cohort in 2017 was made up of six teams led by community-based and academic entrepreneurs, serving primarily populations within the United States. These teams had deep familiarity with intervention design, program evaluation, and real-world knowledge of working with families, but minimal business experience. The Center worked with this cohort from September 2017 to May 2018.

The Teams

A FIND coach reviews video clips of everyday positive interactions between a mother and her children with the mother. Photo courtesy of FIND.

Filming Interactions to Nurture Development (FIND) is a video coaching program that aims to strengthen positive “serve and return” interactions between caregivers and children. The FIND team had developed adaptations of FIND for many settings, including pediatrics, center-based and family child care, child welfare, homeless shelters, and more. In the TTS phase, the FIND team focused on designing the business and operational aspects of the organization needed to reach their scaling vision. They explored working with an outside fiscal agent to launch FIND as a stand-alone entity. They also learned more about potential customer needs in different delivery channels, with the goal of selecting one to pursue to scale. They were now poised to implement and carry forward their plans for scaling.

Three-Year Update: Three years after their initial engagement with TTS, the FIND team reports that the funding and support they received has enabled them to pursue activities in three priority areas: (1) organizational development, including hiring additional staff to explore the opportunity for growth and expansion of FIND, (2) program and materials development, including the creation of a FIND website and new logo, and (3) identification of systems with potential for scaling including the exploration of quality rating and improvement systems. They continue to engage in fast-cycle iterations as they create new program models and offerings to reach new populations, while expanding their thinking about pathways to impact at scale.

MOMS Partnership
A MOMS Partnership® Community Mental Health Ambassador talks with a mother and her child. Photo courtesy of MOMS Partnership®.

Mental health Outreach for Mothers (MOMS) Partnership® provides over-burdened, under-resourced moms with a suite of supports (including cognitive behavioral therapy) in their local communities that reduce symptoms of depression and increase economic mobility. Their vision is to provide mothers with the tools and services they need to successfully move out of poverty. In the TTS phase, the MOMS team identified the core elements of their model necessary for replication, pitched to a set of innovative state TANF systems to join them as replication partners, selected the next three sites for replication, and launched a Policy Lab to house their replication and evaluation efforts, and advance maternal mental health policy initiatives.

Three-Year Update: The MOMS team has made substantial progress on their goal of scaling to five sites in five years. Since their time in TTS, they have expanded from one to four sites (New Haven, CT; Vermont; Washington, DC; and Kentucky) and are now serving more than 500 mothers. Plans for expansion to sites in New York City and Bridgeport, CT, are underway. In addition, the team has launched Elevate, a policy lab to advance mental health and disrupt poverty and also further the replications efforts of MOMS. They have also published further evidence of the MOMS Partnership’s impact on families.

During their engagement with TTS and the Center, the MOMS team developed a vision for scaling that began with understanding how many mothers were experiencing the problems they were seeking to alleviate. From this they worked backwards to figuring out the rate for their scaling plans. The team also worked to distill out the key components of their intervention that were essential for replicating impact, and to understand what to look for in an effective scaling partner. The team found that adopting a fast-cycle learning approach was key to all of these efforts. MOMS is now poised to continue its expansion and to build a policy agenda to effect change on the larger structural issues influencing mothers.

Motivational Boost is a tech-based, add-on intervention designed to increase engagement in parenting programs by eliciting and then reinforcing a parent’s core values. Community organizations often purchase parenting interventions as a low-cost, population-level way to decrease child abuse/neglect and improve mental health. Low initial engagement and high attrition rates are an ongoing challenge, particularly for interventions that use a remote format, such as online courses. Motivational Boost aims to increase engagement in these parenting interventions in order to improve parent/child relationships. In the TTS phase, this team developed a scaling strategy, selected a delivery channel to pursue, learned more about the problems faced by this delivery channel, and began to seek a social entrepreneur to join their team.

Three-Year Update: The Motivational Boost team reports that they are exploring a promising new delivery channel that could open a substantial market and have significant impact on families’ lives. After learning about the difficulty engaging postpartum mothers in health-promoting behaviors, this team is learning how to support low-income pregnant mothers through Medicaid perinatal care visits. The team is planning to combine mindfulness practices with Motivational Boost to increase health-promoting behaviors during pregnancy and infancy, with the aim of enabling all children to have the best possible start in life.

The Motivational Boost team also recognized that pregnant mothers with limited incomes were experiencing even higher than usual levels of stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. A team of student volunteers used fast-cycle iteration to develop and test a COVID-response adaptation to the program in just three weeks. One team member noted that, “TTS taught us how to do these quick pivots in the field and we’re spreading that idea to the next generation.”

Ready4Routines facilitator Dominique Hinton walks a parent group through the PEERE process: Pause, Engage, Encourage, Reflect, and Extend.

Ready4Routines (R4R) is a curriculum for parents that uses daily family routines to increase child and adult executive function skills and relationship quality, while reducing parental stress. During TTS, the R4R team pursued three different delivery channels for scaling R4R. One delivered R4R in its original form, through a partnership with mental health and early care and education programs in Los Angeles County. A second version, ShineOn Families, was a lighter version of R4R, delivered across a much longer time frame to Head Start programs. The third involved early stage exploration of a sellable app.

Three-Year Update: The Ready4Routines team reports that each of the three organizations (Acelero Learning, University of Minnesota, and Westside Infant Network) is implementing a R4R-informed intervention. The innovative interventions were developed during the R4R team’s year-long engagement with TTS, an experience described by one R4R team member as a “jetpack for progress.” Working iteratively in real-world contexts, the team is continuing to test and learn more about the core components of the model in two new locations and with a new population. The R4R approach is embedded in a $14M grant to build resiliency in families living in Los Angeles County. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, another team member created a virtual hybrid called “Shine at Home,” which draws on R4R’s core principles and strategies for use in the home learning environment. The R4R team member in the academic setting described the deep influence of fast-cycle iteration on his work, stating “It’s hard to overemphasize its importance … it’s a great program, I recommend it to everyone,” noting it has completely transformed his approach to research. The R4R team is a strong example of using fast-cycle iteration to respond to the needs of families in a fast-changing environment.

Photo courtesy of Tools of the Mind.

Tools of the Mind (Tools) is a preschool and kindergarten play-based curriculum that embeds the development of self-regulation and social emotional skills across all activities, teaching children how to learn as they develop the core capabilities to support school and life success. The Tools team developed the PowerTools app to amplify individualized supported reading practice, and promote child agency in the process of learning to read. PowerTools analytics capture specific data on each child’s approach to decoding and comprehension, empowering teachers with the information they need to differentiate and target instruction. In the TTS phase, the Tools team developed a business plan to put themselves on a sustainable, self-funded trajectory.

Three-Year Update: Three years later, the organization has fortified its financial foundation, added staff in new strategic roles, and as a 501(c)3, established a board. PowerTools has been expanded to include the DWA – Developmental Writing Assessment app, to give Tools teachers unique insights into the interrelationship between reading and writing development. These apps form the Tools Early Literacy Solution, and allow for the naturalistic and automatic collection of data in the context of children’s engagement in core classroom activities.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on early childhood programs, Tools innovated a new Tools@Home portal, connecting parents and caregivers with teachers in support of children’s remote learning, and innovating additional design features to PowerTools and the DWA to extend teacher:child coaching to home and make home learning data visible to teachers. With video and audio evidence and data showing children’s emerging skills in at-home learning, Tools teachers are providing micro-coaching to parents to support each child’s development. Tools of the Mind used their engagement in TTS to make a substantial investment in their organizational infrastructure to sustain and grow their scale, and TTS research support for Fast Cycle Trials supported Tools’ early stage app research and development. Over 25+ years, Tools has impacted more than 6,500 educators and 86,000 children in the U.S., Canada, and Chile.

Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan (WOOP) is an evidence-based, motivational intervention focused on planning and meeting goals, with demonstrated effectiveness in a diversity of adult populations. The TTS project focused on WOOP’s adaptation for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) settings, with caseworkers and with clients. During TTS, the WOOP team developed their scaling strategy, acknowledging that how they got from zero to four sites was not going to be the same strategy that would help them grow from four to 10, and 10 to 100 sites. The team focused on developing a set of marketing and training materials that were scalable, and then testing and revising them. They also explored how the WOOP intervention fit into a larger change vision for TANF settings.

Three-Year Update: WOOP’s intervention has evolved in exciting ways since their engagement with TTS. Each of the members of the original development team has taken elements of the work and moved forward in different directions to reach impact at scale. On one path, team members have continued to experiment with and further develop the research behind WOOP. They also developed a set of training videos that TANF and other human service agencies can use to learn how to deliver WOOP in their programs. On a second path, the team has woven the concepts of adult capabilities, motivation, and coaching practices into a larger framework that uses executive function principles to build more effective human services programs. Created as an enduring, asynchronously available set of resources, these materials have been made available to TANF programs across the United States, with the goal of influencing the mindset of those seeking to reimagine TANF systems. The team also created an open-source virtual training course (Goal, Plan, Do, Review/Revise) that embeds executive function principles and concepts into a goal achievement model for TANF programs.

The third path was an evolution and incorporation of the “WOOP in TANF model” into a practice model called Goal4 It! The model is described as “a science-informed approach to achieving economic independence by activating motivation and commitment to change,” has reached thousands of families, including many receiving TANF and/or SNAP benefits, and noncustodial parents, across nine states and 150 local agencies. This model has incorporated the science of adult capabilities, along with research-based practices around motivation and coaching and translated them into tactical moves that can be made by front-line workers, supervisors, and leaders in TANF contexts. The result has been a revolution in TANF systems across the country. The team cites the Transition to Scalability phase, and their variety of interactions with the Center, as helping them to take insights from the science and, through fast-cycle iteration, help them build models that are driving a mindset shift for what practice can look like in TANF systems.


The initial TTS teams made tremendous progress during their engagement with FOI. All of the teams began to develop the organizational side of their ventures, to complement their strong impact work, and to carry their ventures to scale. They also put in place essential building blocks for their growth toward scale, including:

  • One team received a significant investment in its next phase of funding.
  • One team became deeply engaged in conversation with seven new funders to support growth.
  • One team sought a social entrepreneur to join them to lead their scaling strategy.
  • One team selected their delivery channel for scale and hired a Managing Director.
  • One team simplified their model to make it more replicable and confirmed partnership in new sites for replication.
  • One team made a significant realization about its potential role in systems change beyond scaling an individual intervention, and pivoted its efforts.

Impact: Reflections Three Years Later

To get a longitudinal look at which elements of the TTS experience had triggered shifts in mindsets or behaviors that fundamentally shaped the trajectory of the teams, the Center conducted follow-up interviews with the teams in the summer of 2020.

Three themes emerged from the interviews:

  1.  Fast-cycle iteration changed how the teams worked. They now have a method for trying out lighter experiments, using fewer resources, and learning faster. One team said that fast-cycle iteration enabled them to become a learning organization, seeking constant improvement in their impact. Another team described it as experiencing a mindset shift to pivoting quickly and being nimble and flexible. Academic team members, in particular, reported sharing the fast-cycle iteration approach with other research projects and students. The teams have also applied the approach to their impact and scale strategies.

  2.  Selecting scaling partners is tricky, but it can be aided by knowing which elements of an intervention must be replicated and which can be adapted. Several teams’ path to scaling included identifying a partner who reaches many children and families, such as a public system, or one in a new geography. Teams found that the work they had done during TTS to identify the key elements of their intervention and to reflect on their core values was essential to selecting the right partners for scaling. This work also helped the teams be more creative in considering new delivery channels.

  3.  Understanding and being aligned with the science supported teams’ strategies to better communicate the importance of their work to both funders and those they serve.

Lessons Learned

In TTS, FOI set out to help teams move beyond early feasibility (incubation) and toward scale. From their TTS experiences during the first year, we learned the following:

Use Lean Startup tools to launch thinking about the business side of scaling. Our approach in working with teams in TTS was inspired by the Lean Startup methodology about how to build nimble social impact organizations. By using the Lean Startup tools and mindsets, developing a business plan suddenly seemed more doable.

Rapid-cycle testing applies the same to intervention development as it does to developing a business model. Teams were pleasantly surprised to realize they could go out and have conversations and iterate on their business model approach, much in the same way they were already doing with the intervention itself.

In the early childhood sector, there can be up to three customers at any one time. Most traditional business models assume you have one customer, who both uses your product and pays for it. When serving children and families facing adversity, interventions can have up to three potential customers, with only one paying for it. First, there is the recipient of the intervention—a child, an adult, or the pair. Second is the customer who delivers the intervention, such as a home visitor, teacher, or case worker. Then there’s the actual customer who pays for the intervention’s expansion, such as government or a large non-profit. Understanding how an intervention fills a need for each of these customers is crucial.

The team that got you through incubation might not be the same one that takes you through scaling. The strengths and skills needed during the incubation phase and impact development, are not the same ones needed to build a business and find delivery channels and customers. Teams spent time during this phase working on questions such as, “Who do I need to have on my team to scale successfully with impact?”

The strengths and skills needed during the incubation phase and impact development, are not the same ones needed to build a business and find delivery channels and customers.

Beyond the work with the TTS teams, the Center also sought to understand much more about the innovation ecosystem in early childhood. To do that, we formed a learning community with other organizations that were similarly looking to grow the innovation ecosystem by bringing in business and social entrepreneurship, including Promise Venture Studio, Gary Community Investments, and Omidyar Network. This learning community shared observations, lessons learned, and ideas for what to try next.

Lessons Learned: Three Years Later

Many of the insights we had at the end of the first year of TTS still hold true now, and some have become even clearer.

Transition to Scalability is a distinct phase of an intervention’s development, a time when teams must prepare to take a major leap in their impact and scale strategies if they are serious about impact at scale. And, teams vary widely in the sophistication of their impact and scale strategies. We began TTS with the belief that impact and scale strategies would mature in tandem, but what we observed is that there is rarely a correlation between the sophistication of these strategies. As a result, we have adjusted our offerings to meet teams where they are, and to make our support nimbler to better help teams make their next leap.

Concepts from Lean Start-Up can be relevant in building early childhood social impact organizations, but they need some translation. Two concepts that continue to resonate with teams are fast-cycle iteration and designing with a customer (e.g., participant, funder, beneficiary) in mind. When we launched TTS, these ideas had not been applied yet in the early childhood sector. Recently, however, with an influx of innovators and intermediary partners with entrepreneurial backgrounds, these ideas are becoming more widely used. At the same time, we’ve noted varying levels of comfort in applying these concepts—some innovators require more scaffolding to apply this methodology in the early childhood space. By integrating a Lean Start-Up mindset into the TTS offering, we have not only brought value to early childhood entrepreneurs, but we’ve also helped the mindset resonate in the early childhood ecosystem. Moving forward, we are partnering with others who can provide deeper technical expertise in this area.

Helping innovators reach impact at scale is an ever-evolving strategy. Since the first TTS cohort, we have explored additional methods for supporting teams, including offering joint technical assistance with other intermediaries and hosting a portfolio of teams with mid-size grants and more individualized support. Through these iterations, we’ve identified our niche, which is helping teams develop a sophisticated strategy around science, impact, and scale that prepares them for growth. We will continue to provide opportunities for organizations in the early childhood ecosystem to learn with and from each other, accelerating the progress of all. And, we will continue to tailor our offerings for the teams’ specific needs.

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about Transition to Scalability or the Center’s other offerings, please check out our Science-Based Innovation Training workshops or the Promising Ventures Fellowship. And, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to learn about new opportunities.