Shift from a Lean Team of Doers to Differentiated Roles

CASE at Duke
Scaling Pathways
Published in
5 min readDec 7, 2020


How can you evolve the roles and responsibilities within your organization to align with your phase of growth and scale?

“When you are smaller or in an earlier stage, individual team members can effectively carry multiple roles. But as you attempt to scale your impact, you have to bifurcate roles thoughtfully in order to achieve an increasingly complex mission.” — Carla Javits, President and CEO, REDF

This quote from Carla Javits, President and CEO of REDF, a venture philanthropy supporting employment social enterprises, illustrates a common experience across many organizations. In earlier stages, smart generalists who can wear multiple hats and learn quickly are the fuel that drives the pioneering work of the organization. But as the work gets more complex — including nuanced scaling pathways, larger teams, and multiple partners — differentiated roles or teams become necessary. But how should social enterprises differentiate roles?

Advice from the field includes:

1. Assess the specific roles your business model and scaling pathways require.

Social enterprise VisionSpring started as a “lean team of doers,” but as it scaled and experimented with different business models the need for more depth of expertise in certain key areas became clear. As its work took it deeper into sales to multiple customer bases (e.g., direct to consumer, business to business), engaging more experienced sales and marketing professionals was critical. As it recognized the need for real time performance monitoring and operational insights across geographically dispersed teams, it added a director of technology. And, as it worked to build additional evidence to guide the work and help secure funding, it shifted to in-house monitoring and evaluation capacity and, importantly, formalizing arrangements with research partners.

In another example, Living Goods, a social enterprise working to transform community health, determined that one avenue to scale (beyond its direct program implementation) was to influence community health practice globally. In order to share its knowledge on quality community health care provision with global stakeholders (including USAID, the World Health Organization, and The Global Fund), Living Goods created a Director of Advocacy position and built out its government relations/advocacy teams in-country to leverage local knowledge and connections. [Read more about Living Goods scaling journey here.]

Nearly 60 percent of respondents to a Scaling Pathways talent survey said that the operations lead (e.g. COO or Director of Operations) is in the top three most critical senior leadership positions (aside from CEO/ED) for an organization working to scale its impact. Other top positions for scale, according to respondents, are those leading programs, finance, and development.

2. Don’t forget about infrastructure roles.

Gary Cohen, President and Founder of Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), reflected on his organization’s differentiation of roles and cautioned against over-investing in programmatic reach and not enough in infrastructure. Cohen said if he could do it again, he would invest earlier in senior development roles (especially related to stewarding high net worth individuals to maximize flexible funding and help support overhead). He would also hire earlier to support data, metrics, and learning — roles he sees as critical to scaling the impact of HCWH’s work promoting environmental health and justice. Lucy Lake, CEO of girls’ education social enterprise CAMFED, agreed, noting that an important early hire was a Head of IT Innovation (i.e., Chief Technology Officer), given the crucial role of effective systems in ensuring cooperation among teams and in reinforcing accountability. In CAMFED’s case, the process of tracking entitlements to individual beneficiaries is core to its model, so this role was critical as CAMFED scaled from supporting thousands to hundreds of thousands of girls.

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

3. Evolve founder’s role.

The shift from “doer” to a more differentiated role is probably most stark for the founder. Research finds that, despite the vision, determination, and charisma of founders, some may lack the CEO-type skills — or desire — required to lead a growing and/or scaling organization. Organizations (including their boards) must work with the founder to define the best role for her/him over time; such roles could include a more externally-focused position working on marketing and/or fundraising, a board seat to bring institutional knowledge and mission consistency, or perhaps no formal role at all. In any case, the founder’s and new leader’s personalities and interests must be taken into account and roles communicated clearly both internally and externally.

After leading VisionSpring for eight years, Founder Jordan Kassalow recognized that his skills and passions were more aligned to an external-facing role that would allow him to continue to champion VisionSpring while also working at a systems level to mobilize new resources, attention, and advocacy toward the problem VisionSpring was trying to solve. He has remained on VisionSpring’s Board of Directors, continues to serve as a close advisor to the CEO, and has co-founded the EYElliance, a coalition of public, private, NGO partners, and stakeholders that collaborate to address the global unmet need for eyeglasses. For Alexandra Quinn, the first non-founder CEO of Health Leads, the founder transitions required the organization to reconsider how change management is handled. She explained that significant changes earlier in an organization’s life are often propelled by the charisma of the founder — and people generally follow. When new leadership comes in, the organization must develop systems to manage change and retain dynamism in an efficient and effective way.

4. Build vs Buy: Flex capacity through outsourcing.

As you evolve your team, you may identify responsibilities, areas of expertise, or skill sets that you need only sporadically or that you do not have the organizational infrastructure to support. Therefore, in addition to leveraging outside partners (see the Leverage Capacity of External Partners article), you may want to outsource or contract out to build flexible capacity instead of creating in-house roles.

Root Capital, a social enterprise investing in and supporting small agriculture businesses, recognized that it did not need a full-time IT staff member and that any one person would be unlikely to have the range of skills the organization may need. As a result, Root Capital decided to contract with an IT firm so that it could pay for only the hours it needed, access a broader range of knowledge, and be privy to changing best practices in the field. Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), which powers local communities to drive conservation efforts, has been adamant that it should do only the things to which it can add unique value and is well-positioned to do. This philosophy has led it to contracting with other organizations for services, such as improving its training programs and facilities and creating an operational plan for scaling. However, FES CEO Jagdeesh Rao warns organizations not to underestimate the time it takes to scope and manage contracts and the amount of funding required to do so. He also notes the positive spillover effect, though, in which outsourcing helps build the resources for the entire ecosystem rather than for FES alone.

Do’s and Don’ts of Shifting from a Lean Team of Doers to Differentiated Roles

Read next: Think Beyond Staff, Part 1: Empower Volunteers, or return to see all articles in People Power.

This article was written by Erin Worsham, Kimberly Langsam, and Ellen Martin, and released in July 2019.



CASE at Duke
Scaling Pathways

The Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University leads the authorship for the Scaling Pathways series.