Structuring Local and Central Teams: What Scaling Organizations Can Learn From Teach For America

In our work advising scaling organizations, one of the most common challenges we see involves defining the structure and roles of local and central teams. Most new education organizations start out with a single school, city, or site. As they grow, they often expand to additional schools, sites, or regions. As a result, they often come to have a network of school/local/city/regional teams that carry out the work at a local level, as well as a central team that coordinates, oversees, or supports work across multiple local sites. Deciding how to structure these local and central teams; how much autonomy local teams should have; and what specific functions, roles, and responsibilities to place at the local and central levels, is an important and challenging question for scaling organizations.

Regional-central roles and relationships, and their evolution over time, are also a key focus of our recent report on Teach For America’s growth over the past 15 years. In its earliest years, Teach For America had relatively little centralized capacity to support or oversee regional teams, but as it grew rapidly in the mid-2000s, it put in place a highly centralized “matrix” operating model in which dedicated national teams supported, and in some cases helped to manage, regional staff’s work on development, communications, programming, and alumni support. Today, however, Teach For America is transitioning to a more flexible approach in which regions will have greater autonomy over their budgets and staffing and receive varied levels of support from the national team depending on their regional capacity and needs.

Teach For America’s experience shows that there’s no one “right” answer to the question of how to structure local and national teams–so scaling organizations looking to Teach For America for an easy answer to questions about regional-national structure will be disappointed. That doesn’t mean these organizations can’t learn from Teach For America’s experience, however. Specific lessons include:

  • There are trade-offs between different approaches to organizing regional and national teams (and Teach For America’s experience with different models at different stages in its growth illustrates these trade-offs)
  • The “right” answer for a particular organization will vary depending on the nature of the organization’s work, its stage of growth, talent pipeline, and the external context in which it operates
  • The best regional-national structure for a particular organization may evolve over time, as the organization matures or its talent pipeline and external context change.

These lessons don’t necessarily lead an organization to the right local-central structure, but they can help organizations identify and think about trade-offs between possible structures. Later this week I’ll talk about one more specific lesson from Teach For America’s experience that scaling organizations must take into account as they define their local-central structures.