KaBOOM! using the internet to scale impact

22.03.2013 Blog

KaBOOM! Using the internet to scale impact 

Darell Hammond and Dawn Hutchison founded KaBOOM! in 1996 after Hammond read a tragic story of two children suffocating to death while playing in an abandoned car. Hammond came to the conclusion that this could easily have been avoided had the children had somewhere local and safe to play. They started the charity with the aim to build “a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America,” and have since had huge success. In 2010 Heather McLeod Grant and Katherine Fulton of the Monitor Institute did some research to find out how KaBOOM! managed to increase – or ‘scale’ - their impact so successfully.

The Beginning

KaBOOM! started off, like many traditional non-profits, with limited staff and resources. During this stage they took responsibility of the project management for each new playground; organising volunteers, funding and engaging other non-profits and community actors. This model worked well and corporate funding from The Home Depot, Target, Sprint, JetBlue, and Ben & Jerry’s, allowed the project to grow considerably. However, they still lacked the resources to address the scale of the problem as requests were coming in for playgrounds all over the country.

The Dilemma

This left KaBOOM! with the dilemma of how to scale their impact to meet the demand. They looked into opening new offices around the country which would be managed directly by KaBOOM! or having various affiliates. However, they decided simply to give their model away for free online. Hammond was inspired by a wedding planning website called TheKnot.com, as it was centred around a lot of planning for a large event that happened on a single day just like building a playground; and a community website called Meetup.com which allows groups of likeminded people to meet up and enjoy common interests.

By using a variety of offline and online techniques they could increase their impact faster while cutting their costs. KaBOOM! worked hard to get their blueprints and management strategies online to create a DIY guide for communities across the country. Although KaBOOM! had been using the internet since 1996 it took a lot of experimentation to perfect their model. Their work showed rewards in 2009 when they were involved in building 1,600 DIY playgrounds across the USA; this was almost as many as they had built in the previous 14 years using their offline methods.

From the experience of KaBOOM! the Monitor Group identified seven main lessons in scaling up that could potentially help other start-ups. These are outlined below:

Lesson 1: Keep it simple and concrete

Simplicity is key when using the internet to scale your model. If others can easily learn and implement the project they are more likely to replicate it. KaBOOM! had already meticulously kept records of a large amount of their work so it was simply a case of stripping it down to its basic form and transferring it onto the internet. Furthermore, it helped that the process produced a “concrete” product at the end that people could appreciate.

Lesson 2: Make online strategy central

For many non-profit organisations their online presence and strategy is an add-on to their main work. However, KaBOOM! has viewed it as a central aspect to their development and scaling process.

Lesson 3: Building your own technical competencies

Making online strategy central to ones work can be very expensive if the technical work becomes outsourced. Many non-profits don’t feel confident enough to create websites and keep up web development. However, KaBOOM!  found it far cheaper and less time consuming to hire software developers giving the charity more control over its content and costing less for changes.

Lesson 4: Nurture your online community via its leaders

Creating tools for users and putting them online is not enough. If people are not encouraged to use the tools and given the prompts to find them the tools are not likely to get used.
KaBOOM! targeted the leaders of each DIY playground project. Hammond himself gives them direct advice as does a newly hired support officer who offers full time support to project leaders. At the moment most of the advice and support comes from KaBOOM! staff. However, they are working to make it more of a network where community leaders, builders and other community members can advise each other about different issues online. This they hope will allow the voice of the community to dominate online discussion rather than the organisation.        

Lesson 5: Give incentives for action

Self organisation is a difficult task. Jim Hunn of Mass Action describes each new playground as trying to create a new “mini-nonprofit”. To help get people active KaBOOM!  initiated competitions for people to submit the best playground ideas. The winners get a financial contribution towards the building of their playground. They have also started an online points system and give awards to people or groups who have been particularly successful.

Lesson 6:  Give up credit to increase impact

KaBOOM!  offered to share their toolkit for free with other organisations by allowing them to post it on their website. However, some organisations have shown discontent with the branding of KaBOOM! or their funders on the toolkit. KaBOOM! made the decision that to maximise distribution and positive impact they may have to give up credit for the toolkit. They are willing to do this as long as the data about the playground goes into a central repository so everyone can learn from it further increasing impact.

Lesson 7: Care more about real-world impact than online metrics

Finally, when focusing on an online strategy, one should not get bogged down with false online proxies. For example, KaBOOM! originally aimed to raise their website views to 300,000 people per month. However, to achieve this they realised that they would be focusing on “junk traffic”, people who click once and are unlikely to return. Therefore, they focus more on engaging the right people and measuring results from their output – the playgrounds created and their impact on people’s lives. KaBOOM! even commissioned various external evaluations to get an idea of the impact of their projects on the lives of people and communities.


KaBOOM! has shown that effective scaling is not unique to the for-profit world and that innovative uses of the internet can be extremely efficient in scaling impact. By mixing online and offline techniques they have managed to supply a lot more of the demand for playgrounds. Their DIY playgrounds now outnumber the KaBOOM! led playgrounds by 10 to one and they aim to increase this number to 30 to one. The success in scaling impact demonstrated by KaBOOM! should be an inspiration to other non-profits attempting to use the internet to spread their idea and scale their impact.