It started with one woman, homeless in San Francisco, lamenting that she would never be clean. Lava Mae founder, Doniece Sandoval, heard her cries. Those words, a desire to help those experiencing homelessness, and a crazy obsession with the mobile food truck movement set in motion what would eventually become Lava Mae.

Lava Mae believes that access to showers and toilets shouldn’t be a luxury, and seeks to serve those who lack access to what should be basic human rights – showers and sanitation. Since June 2014 the team has delivered over 14,000 showers, welcoming them according to Lava Mae’s mantra of ‘radical hospitality.’

In light of the huge need and demand for their work, Lava Mae started thinking about how they could scale their impact. They recognised the potential to positively affect more people experiencing homelessness in other geographies by replicating their model.

At the time of engaging ICSF, Lava Mae had countless opportunities both in the US and around the globe, and multiple ideas for scaling up its impact. We have since helped Lava Mae to redefine their strategic direction, concentrate their expansion efforts on two scale-up strategies and are continuing to help the Lava Mae team implement them in a sustainable way.

Read further for an in depth insight into our work with Lava Mae.

Over the last year, Lava Mae has been presented with so many new opportunities to scale - in the Bay Area, California, throughout the US, and overseas - which is amazing but it was also a bit challenging to determine which opportunities to pursue, why, and how. With ICSF, we’ve been able to create a focused and realistic scale strategy, develop the right operational model to help us get there, and ultimately optimize our resources to help us achieve our scale goals, while making sure we’re staying true to our mission and impact. As we begin to develop branches in new locations, ICSF has been instrumental as an engaged partner to ensure Lava Mae scales strategically and systematically.

Doniece Sandoval, Founder / CEO, Lava Mae


How do you scale a celebrated local San Francisco service model that delivers mobile hygiene and critical services in the hope of restoring dignity amongst the homeless?

Lava Mae repurposes retired transportation buses into showers and toilets on wheels to deliver hygiene in the hopes of restoring dignity to those experiencing homelessness in San Francisco.

After establishing the service in June 2014, Lava Mae launched a second bus in September 2015, and continues to attract the attention of the media, corporate sponsors, and industry partners.

At the time of engaging ICSF, Lava Mae had countless opportunities both in the US and around the globe, and multiple ideas for scaling up its impact, including:

  • Creating ‘Pop Up Care Villages’ (bringing a variety of mobile service providers together in the same location to serve a range of needs for those experiencing homelessness)
  • Developing a third party affiliation model (working with other external partners to bring Lava Mae to other locations)
  • Opening new Lava Mae branches throughout California
  • Organising social marketing campaigns to improve public perceptions of those living on the street
  • Open sourcing their intellectual property and operations via an online toolkit

By focusing on so many great initiatives, however, Lava Mae risked overwhelming its core team, and ultimately sacrificing its social impact by spreading its resources too thin. As such, Lava Mae was searching for the right set of strategies to systematically scale their impact.


Lava Mae’s model and services are widely needed, and thus there were many opportunities to scale up in different ways and locations. However, in light of the huge need in California, we helped Lava Mae to concentrate its expansion efforts locally with two specific models.

As a first step, we conducted brief primary and secondary research within the homeless sector in San Francisco and surrounding areas, as well as due diligence on Lava Mae’s organisational strategy and operations, including a SWOT analysis of the organisation and the market in which it was operating.

We then facilitated a full day scale strategy workshop to help Lava Mae answer the key question: “where should Lava Mae concentrate its efforts in light of the huge need, as well as external pressure to scale up in multiple directions?”

During the workshop, Lava Mae and ICSF narrowed Lava Mae’s scale focus, explored replication models, and identified initial areas for improvement by going through our Replication Readiness Test.

Following the scale strategy workshop, we have continued to engage with Lava Mae to help develop the replication model by conducting further interviews with key stakeholders and closely collaborating with the Lava Mae staff via workshops.


Developed Lava Mae’s scale strategy

We co-developed the following vision, mission, problem definition, and impact goal as part of the strategy workshop to help Lava Mae concentrate their scaling efforts.

  • Vision: a world where people treat each other with dignity
  • Mission: taking radical hospitality to the streets
  • Problem definition: society allows different standards for people who have homes vs. people who don’t
  • Impact goal: deliver access to critical services to 30,000 people in California experiencing homelessness by 2020

Identified Lava Mae’s scale models

Next, to ensure Lava Mae is well positioned to scale its impact and achieve its impact goal, we recommended Lava Mae concentrate on two scale-up strategies:

  • Pop Up Care Villages: pilot its pop up care villages in San Francisco in 2016
  • Branching to San Jose and Los Angeles: develop a branch model that is scheduled for pilot in late 2016

Branch model development (in process)

We are continuing to support Lava Mae in developing their branch model in San Jose and Los Angeles, including:

  • Core elements (identifying the key drivers of Lava Mae’s impact and what operational elements must exist within all of its branches)
  • Financial model (structuring the financial flow between Lava Mae’s headquarters and branches, with an eye towards financial sustainability)
  • Governance (outlining how decision making will occur for Lava Mae’s branches and Lava Mae’s headquarters)
  • Staffing (identifying capacity required for scale and specific roles needed at the branches)
  • Culture (exploring ways to ensure Lava Mae’s culture is retained throughout all branches)

We will continue to support Lava Mae to the end of 2016, and help them prepare for pilots in Los Angeles and San Jose. Through this work, the aim is to position Lava Mae for successful rapid scale in the future and ultimately to achieve their Impact Goal of delivering access to critical services to 30,000 people in California experiencing homelessness by 2020.