A Radical Way to Ramp Up Impact by Winding Down


New Institute Publication Assesses Wager to Scale Impact


Posted December 12, 2023 - Cordelia Snowdon-Lawley


For our latest publication, The Dandelion Wager: Scaling Social Impact by Winding Up and Giving it All Away, we were invited to document a bold strategy to increase impact by closing an organization. Capturing this case study provided the opportunity to not just chronicle the dissolution of a cherished community organization, but more importantly it was an opportunity to see how one organization’s legacy can ‘live on’ in other forms and have the potential to paradoxically scale.

This case study follows the journey of Calgary Reads as they carefully dissolved their organization into a set of seeds to be sown by partner organizations. Known as the Dandelion Story, this strategy sought - much like a dandelion - to spread the seeds of literacy initiatives beyond one small but mighty nonprofit.


“The dandelion is our strategy to address succession, sustainability and scale. Community change efforts need to be dynamic and sustainability doesn’t always have to mean preserving the current form. Our goal is a more equitable and resilient future for young readers, but also distributed leadership - new partners who will own this great challenge, work in new ways, and collaborate, strategically, to redesign the systems that must work better to support children.” 

- Steacy Pinney, Report to the Community: From small things big things grow, 2021-2022.


As part of this, the Dandelion Wager examines the rationale and origins of the legacy transfer concept, the progress to date, the potential to scale impact through strategic transfers and post-dissolution activities, and lessons learned along the way. It shares insights into how to scale and includes a framework for nonprofit organizations, leaders, funders, capacity builders, and changemakers who are looking for innovative ways to scale impact.




As Calgary Reads and their seed partners prepared to embark on the Dandelion Story, they relied on the Adaptive Cycle, a social innovation mapping tool adapted from ecological science.1 Organizations can ‘map’ themselves onto a Möbius loop divided into successive phases similar to forest succession: Once a mature forest collapses, releasing its stored-up carbon, it goes through a period of re-organization, then new growth, then maturity, which can stall in a ‘rigidity trap’.



Image: The Journey of the Dandelion Story Mapped on the Adaptive Cycle 

As organizations like Calgary Reads reach maturity, they have the opportunity for some form of ‘release’, in this case pursuing creative destruction as a means to re-approach the reorganization phase from a place of strength and expanded community capacity. Looking to the future, the Dandelion Seeds are well on their way to the growing literacy initiatives and improving the lives of young readers.


The Dandelion Wager builds on the Institute’s experience scanning issues and another social innovation strategy: two nonprofits merging to scale their impact. Merging for Good: A Case-Based Framework for Supporting Effective Nonprofit Amalgamations introduced a framework for nonprofit organizations that may be considering embarking on a merger, or a similar form of amalgamation or consolidation. It captures insights from the merger of two nonprofit human services organizations in Calgary into a new organization, the Trellis Society for Community Impact, or simply "Trellis".


Both case studies chart audacious, nearly taboo ideas: to be innovative, an organization might have to exit the scene as a precondition to changing a system. 

"The dandelion metaphor is apt, although a dandelion, while a beautiful but fleeting thing, is to many people an ugly nuisance that must be eradicated. So perhaps an even more apt metaphor is the death of a tree - say a magnificent Douglas Fir - enveloped by mycelium arising from the forest floor, its nutrients absorbed and repurpose into the germination and growth of many more seedlings scattered throughout the forest. The once proud and precious tree, which the community cherished, has surrendered itself to the greater cause of a flourishing forest. Such is the way of life, perhaps even the very meaning of life. Which suggests that this experiment in biomimicry - this weedy wager - has a deeper, more profound logic."

- The Dandelion Wager, Page 37

While the dominant cultural ethos in North America seems to steer us away from thinking about endings, the Dandelion Story serves as a powerful reminder of how winding up and giving it all away can actually be a tremendous strategy.


To read the full Dandelion Wager report, visit our Publications Page

Curious to learn more about the Dandelion Story? Visit the Legacy Calgary Reads Site for details. 




  1. As one example of the Adaptive Cycle, Gunderson, L. H. and Holling, C.S (Eds.). (2009). Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press