What I Learned from Scaling Playworks into a National Movement

Aug 30, 2016, 9:28 AM, Posted by Jill Vialet

Jill Vialet’s idea to transform the school day through the power of play started with just two schools and now serves more than 1,300 nationwide. The CEO and founder of Playworks shares the tough lessons she learned about scale during her journey.

I was visiting an elementary school back in 1996 when the frazzled principal desperately turned to me and asked if I could “do something” about what was happening at recess. Just moments before I arrived she had reprimanded three fifth grade boys in her office for fighting on the playground. It clearly wasn’t the first time they had been there for the same offense.

I was originally there to discuss an artist residency program for a children’s art museum I was running in Oakland, California. Instead, I listened to the principal lament how recess had become the most dreaded part of the school day. Kids were getting into trouble, getting hurt, and feeling left out. As far as this principal was concerned, the real tragedy was the distraction from teaching and learning, something she just couldn’t accept.

The conversation with the principal made me think about my own experience as a child and a dedicated coach named Clarence at my after school program. Clarence helped me build critical life skills like good sporting behavior, respect for others, and patience. His encouragement made it possible for me to get in the game.

These memories of Coach Clarence came rushing back as I listened to the principal. I thought to myself “every kid deserves to have someone like Clarence in their lives.” This moment of inspiration was the idea that led to Sports4Kids, now called Playworks, a nonprofit that brings safe, fun, and inclusive play to elementary schools at recess. We partner with schools to provide services including on-site recess coaches and training for school staff who support recess. Our programs help kids learn valuable social and emotional skills, be physically active, and return to class excited to learn. Playworks received a series of grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) from 2005 to 2015 to support our national expansion.

When I founded Playworks, I had absolutely no idea that it would grow into a national movement. At the time, I saw it as a small local effort through which I could make a difference. But it took off as educators learned about us and reached out for help. We started by serving just two schools in Berkeley, California in 1996. We now serve more than 1,300 elementary in 23 U.S. cities, and reach more than 700,000 students directly and through professional development services.

This growth didn’t happen overnight, and we faced many challenges along the way. Luckily, we had three things going for us: our idea is making a real difference, it is replicable, and it is financially sustainable. On this latter point, it has been critical to our growth that schools were willing to pay for our services. More than just providing resources for ongoing work, this earned income has enabled us to raise money from philanthropic sources that are moved by schools willing to invest in play.

Here are key lessons we learned along the way as we expanded across the country:

1. Bigger isn’t just bigger—bigger is different

As organizations grow, needs not only increase; they change. After Playworks received the initial grant from RWJF, we tried to scale quickly. We’d experienced success with existing staff and with expanding within the Bay Area. So naturally, I thought we could do the same as we opened offices in more cities. But it turned out that we needed a more robust infrastructure to support remote staff, including dedicating resources to more formal and sophisticated systems. We needed to hire experts in finance, IT, human resources, marketing and communications and management. We also had to set up new systems to communicate across offices.

2. Strong managers are critical to transforming ideas into reality

When an organization is small, it may be able to survive without formal management. However, on a larger scale, strong management is necessary to maintain fidelity to the innovation and help all employees understand how their roles are critical to the success of the enterprise.

This was something I learned as Playworks started opening offices in more cities. I was caught off guard when staff expressed a desire for greater direction. Founders of nonprofit organizations are often expected to be all things to all people. I had to be willing to admit that focusing on the nuts and bolts of management was not something I was drawn to or naturally good at. Instead, I needed to find a strong manager and give them the space to thrive in that role.

Despite my board’s initial reluctance, hiring a top level professional manager proved to be a great decision. Around 2007, we hired an interim executive director. We now have a president and chief operating officer in that role who empowers everyone within the organization to contribute their voices toward the vision for our next phase of growth.

3. Define and focus on the endgame

It’s imperative to be clear about the ultimate vision for the effort. Our “north star” is to make it possible for every child to experience safe and healthy play every day. That’s what distinguishes us from other organizations and guides all of our decisions.

For example, at one point, we faced a tough decision regarding whether to close our offices in three cities where school districts were not providing the resources and support necessary to embed safe and healthy play in their schools. It was an incredibly hard decision, but we kept our focus on the key goal of changing the system and acknowledged the need and demand for our programs elsewhere. This led us to conclude that we couldn’t keep those offices open. Maintaining laser-like focus on the endgame makes those painful decisions do-able.

4. Communication is key: Know the power of story and know the audience

Our first grant from RWJF included communications support. At first, I questioned why the foundation was willing to invest so much in communications—it felt fluffy to me. It became clear, however, that effectively telling our story was key to transforming the system and perceptions of play. Working with communications professionals helped us understand why we weren’t getting the response we desired in certain situations.

For instance, we learned just how important it was to tailor our materials about Playworks to address the unique challenges of principals in different regions of the country. In an area like Detroit, principals are interested in violence prevention programs. For them, our message and materials needed to focus on how Playworks can decrease bullying and help kids resolve conflicts constructively. In an area like Denver, principals are more focused on children’s health so we needed to emphasize how Playworks facilitates physical activity.

5. Financial leadership is critical for sustainability  

It is not possible to achieve sustainability without solid financial leadership. Bringing on a seasoned chief financial officer and hiring for financial analysis expertise has introduced a new, welcomed level of stability. We now have a tight understanding of cash flow and are getting very good at forecasting earned revenue. Paying attention to these aspects of our organization has paid off financially. Strong financial leadership helps inform decisions about how best to invest human and capital resources and maximize impact.

6. Our people and our culture are our biggest assets

Ultimately, what matters most are people and organizational culture. It is essential to build an organization in which people believe their work is meaningful, have an opportunity to master the work they do, and have empathy for each other. We are always searching for new staff that show strong potential to advance within our organization. But we also want to create an environment where people can learn new skills and spread our culture and values to other nonprofits or schools when they move on. I’m elated when I hear about schools that hire former Playworks coaches as teachers. I love hearing from the Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs that hire our former coaches that they bring exuberance, playfulness, and a way of engaging that is infectiously positive. Cross-pollinating is part of our goal. The thing we care about is play, not Playworks. If other groups incorporate play into their mission, then we are doubly successful.

While it’s impossible to anticipate the challenges that will arise in any social impact scaling effort, it’s helpful to know that challenges are surmountable. A good idea with real impact that is supported by an earned revenue strategy, a strong culture, strong managerial and financial leadership, functional expertise and a commitment to communicating is well positioned to succeed.

Jill Vialet is the CEO and founder of Playworks. She has spent more than 25 years in the nonprofit sector, focusing her entrepreneurial skills on creating and developing two successful nonprofit organizations for kids. Read her full bio.