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Scaling Nonprofit Impact: Lessons from PelotonU

Guest Author: Sarah Saxton-Frump and Dan Stasiewski

After nearly ten years supporting working adults in Central Texas to earn a college degree, PelotonU faced a mission-critical question shared by many nonprofits: how could we build on our learnings to tackle this challenge on a larger scale?

In the United States, there are 36 million people with some college credits but no degree. Roughly three out of four undergraduates are considered post-traditional college students – students who are often older, working full-time, and managing significant responsibilities outside of school. This is the student we have learned to serve effectively in our hometown of Austin, Texas, since introducing our hybrid college model in 2012. Through flexible online coursework, affordable degree programs, and personal support, our model is helping Central Texans stay on track toward a college degree.

But the barriers in higher education aren’t unique to Central Texas. We saw an opportunity to confront this challenge on a national scale – to build a new pathway to graduation for people across the country. In years prior, we focused our approach to impact on indirect service: we formally and informally trained new “hybrid colleges” like us to launch in their communities, led by people from there.

When COVID forced our model virtual, however, we saw an opportunity to evolve our approach and instead take our model nationwide to communities not being served by existing hybrid colleges. We were excited, certainly, but also extremely cautious: this type of growth and service is a departure from our historical approach and way of living our values. We only wanted to expand our virtual coaching if we were certain we could do so without diminishing the quality of outcome or student experience that had come to be equated with PelotonU – and if we could do so sustainably for our team and with our finances.  That was our big question – how could we maintain the quality and integrity of our model while adapting to a new context?

For our colleagues in higher education, workforce, and other sectors of the nonprofit industry, here are a few of our learnings so far about what it means to scale nonprofit impact while finding the “and” between size and quality, a trade-off so many of us – including PelotonU! – assume must be made. We share these not from a place of perfection or authority, but as insights into the many missteps we’ve made and surprises we’ve had along the way in hopes that they might help you avoid the potholes we hit.

Not All Models Scale – and That’s Okay

PelotonU’s hybrid college model was designed to serve working adults by pairing virtual coursework with personalized in-person support. In our traditional approach, college completion coaches provide one-on-one problem-solving, mentorship, and guided connections to local resources. Their local expertise is indispensable to our model, as it’s not only about knowing who to call for services but also having a deep and nuanced understanding of the context and challenges facing our students.

Recognizing the importance of local support, PelotonU rejected a “franchise” approach and focused instead on a replication approach aimed at getting other organizations to start a hybrid college in their communities. This approach had its challenges, particularly as many potential partners lacked the capital to get things going. Meanwhile, the pandemic was challenging our long-standing belief in the need for in-person coaching as we saw academic and relationship outcomes remain steady in a virtual setting – even in a pandemic. Could virtual coaching be the answer to achieving greater scale?

Through a national pilot to test this approach, we reexamined two core aspects of our support model: in-person coaching, now offered virtually, and guided connections to local services, which would now be provided by local partners rather than our PelotonU coaches. The pilot began in Cincinnati and New York City and offered a scalable path to serving thousands of students – without decreasing local support. Of note, though, is that the model we operated pre-COVID could not have scaled easily through direct service work, with PelotonU opening many locations across the country. Even the indirect approach was slow and challenging, though there’s now a network of about 12 hybrid colleges nationwide. It took a major challenge to our program model for us to uncover that a “core” feature was, in fact, a nice to have – and that opened the door to scale pathways that didn’t make sense before.

One Year In: Lessons Learned

In September 2020, PelotonU announced our national expansion to bring virtual coaching to students across the country. An expansion of this scale and at this pace may not have been possible without the digital transformation accelerated by the pandemic; video calls are a part of our everyday lives now, but back in early 2020, virtual coaching was anything but a foregone conclusion. Achieving our vision of greater scale required us to be nimble in a time of rapid change – and that brings us to our initial learnings.

Willingness to pivot is key for success.

At PelotonU, our conviction is to be firmly guided by the mission while holding the strategy loosely. We could have dug in our heels around the replication approach, determined to stick to the original plan and get other organizations to adopt our proven model. Instead, we recognized it as a dead-end and considered another path forward through national virtual coaching, with the flexibility to respond to shifting circumstances and learnings on the ground.

And frankly, don’t just be willing to pivot. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to make your approach better. For example, we have continued running pilots like testing study space usage in Austin to challenge our sacred assumptions and make sure we’re offering students the most robust support possible.

Flexibility is important. But know where you can budge – and where you can’t.

We used to think that in-person touchpoints were critical for student success, but virtual pivots during the pandemic demonstrated that’s not necessarily the case. What we weren’t willing to compromise was local expertise. PelotonU students continue to tell us that they rely on the resources made available to them because of this deep local knowledge.

On a related note, be sure you know your standard for success. PelotonU is a quality-first organization, not quantity-first. There are advantages and disadvantages to either approach and having a clear vision of your focus will guide the path. As PelotonU begins to scale, we haven’t lost sight of our focus on quality because when it comes to our yardstick for success, there’s no question where we land – this gives us a north star against which to assess if we’ve “gone too far” in our flexibility, and solid data tracking means we can catch it quickly.

Partner wherever possible.

It’s not unusual for nonprofits to duplicate services and over-extend themselves. When adding new services, first make sure there’s no one who could do it better. And when you do decide to build a new partnership, take the time to do it right. Through our national coaching model, we have established partnerships with regional nonprofits across the country. We are often reminded that these relationships can’t be taken for granted – it takes a lot of time and effort to build trust, dispel assumptions, and work toward a shared goal. But a successful partnership will be worth all the energy you’re investing.

Bring your team along.

The shift to a virtual coaching model and a national expansion were exciting developments, but they also created some uncertainty for our team. It can be a vulnerable feeling to watch your organization change around you. As our strategy evolved, we shared frequent updates and had regular conversations to ensure we were designing the best next evolution of our program – something that those of us no longer involved in the day-to-day of supporting students cannot possibly figure out on our own. By ensuring we regularly got input from our entire team, we’ve been able to catch potholes before we fell in them and shelter students from our “almost” mistakes.

That brings us to today. Students served by PelotonU’s national virtual coaching model are now outperforming those served by our traditional model in Austin, and our next three years will focus on expanding quickly and thoughtfully nationwide. Learn more about the national expansion here.

Making progress against social challenges requires that big ideas achieve big scale. In collaboration with nonprofit partners across the country and alongside other hybrid college models, we are working toward a future where every student has the opportunity to earn a life-changing, career-boosting degree – without putting their lives on hold.