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How (Not) to Scale a Nonprofit

Understanding this dangerous balancing act

In 2020, I shut down Esperanza San Felipe, a nonprofit I had founded 7 years earlier that some, including myself, once thought held the secret to tackling one of the world’s most intractable problems: gang violence. Esperanza demobilized four street gangs in one neighborhood in Panama City with positive social outcomes for many of their members. Despite its success, the organization didn’t find a path to sustainability, systematizing its process or scaling to address larger gang problems just a few blocks away, much less internationally as we once thought it might. Though we didn’t scale, we have a lot for which to be proud, and the lessons we learned in the process might be instructive for social entrepreneurs and philanthropists alike.

The Beginning: Success... In One Community

I started Esperanza with the same three key ingredients as any social entrepreneur: a personal motivation to solve a tough problem where government and markets had failed, an entrepreneurial vision for how to do it and a base from which to pursue my vision.

Emotionally, I was motivated by a tragic event—the murder of a young boy in front of my house in San Felipe, the historic district of Panama City where I have lived and worked for the past 20 years.

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