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Mini Case Study: How KaBOOM! uses the Web to teach thousands of communities to build their own playgrounds

   /   Jul 7th, 2010Mini Case Studies, Tech

Social innovators can learn from each others’ successes and failures. That’s the idea behind Dowser’s Mini Case Studies, real-world stories showing how changemakers confront practical challenges. From time to time, we’ll add to the mix great studies from around the web. Here’s one we’ve adapted (with permission): “Breaking New Ground: Using the Internet to Scale A Case Study of KaBOOM!” by Heather McLeod Grant and Katherine Fulton of The Monitor Institute.

KaBOOM! aspires to create a “great place to play within walking distance of every child.” Founded by Darell Hammond in 1996, the DC-based organization grew steadily in its first decade, building hundreds of playgrounds in low-income neighborhoods around the U.S. Along the way, it helped to revolutionize the playground-building industry, making it less about making money and more about enlivening communities.

In the early years, KaBOOM!’s model was to enlist and manage volunteers who would assemble playgrounds, while businesses picked up the tab. It worked well enough that KaBOOM! attracted a stable of high-profile corporate funders, including Home Depot and Ben & Jerry’s.

But around 2004, KaBOOM! ran into the challenge that confounds ambitious social organizations: despite its growth, it couldn’t come close to matching the scale of the problem it was tackling. “We were doing great on the core model,” said COO Bruce Bowman. “But the reality was we were only making a dent in the problem. We were building hundreds of playgrounds when we needed to be building thousands.”

How to increase impact? KaBOOM! considered several options. Should the organization form local chapters or affiliates, self-financed but controlled by the main office? Should it evangelize its model and encourage others to follow suit? Should it assume more of an advocacy role, pushing for high level policy change? “We talked about different ideas,” recalled Kate Becker, who oversees playground building for KaBOOM! “Nothing resonated.”

Then, an idea surfaced that matched the ethos of an organization that, from day one, had counted on the generosity and initiative of strangers: Why not just give away the model for people to replicate on their own? So KaBOOM! assembled a step-by-step guide on its website explaining everything a community needs to do to build its own playgrounds.

What’s distinctive about KaBOOM!’s approach is that while plenty of organizations use the Web to solicit donations of money or time, relatively few have mastered the art of helping others to effectively organize themselves.


It took a few years to refine the new strategy, but by 2009 it was yielding impressive results. In that year alone, KaBOOM! helped other groups construct 1,600 playgrounds around the U.S.–almost as many as it had built directly during its first 14 years. Today, local communities build 10 KaBOOM!-influenced playgrounds for each one KaBOOM! builds itself.

The new model has brought new challenges. “We’ve probably made every mistake there is,” Bowman said. Ceding control to local communities meant changing the culture of the entire organization. It was particularly tough to find talented web developers who fully appreciated KaBOOM!’s mission. And the jury is still out on whether the new strategy is financially sustainable. (Funding so far has come mainly via a $14 million commitment from the Omidyar Network.)

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At this point, it appears that KaBOOM!’s approach has paid off. It has increased impact by a large measure. It has also gained valuable experience in the hows and whys of community organizing. “Breaking New Ground” draws out seven key lessons for organizations that seek to use the Internet to expand their reach. They include: “nurture your online community via its leaders,” “treat your online strategy as mission-critical,” and “give up credit to increase your impact.”

“The idea of giving away a nonprofit model isn’t itself new,” notes the Monitor study. “But KaBOOM! is one of the first to put this approach online, and bring it into the 21st century. In doing so, they have truly broken new ground.”

Photo: KaBOOM!

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