Creating a guide for scaling up is a tricky thing. Many have tried, from Brookings to the UK’s Nesta and the World Health Organisation (WHO). The resulting frameworks and checklists are useful, but necessarily general. That’s because the paths to scale are both very varied, and each unique.
That path is a product of content and context: the program itself and the system it sits in. How much the scale up of a deworming program in India can teach a new model of secondary school in the UK is a matter of debate. Often, the will to scale is the only thing they have in common.
That said, certain universal elements shone through every case study and conversation we had. Everyone should:
- Strive to understand the essential core of a program: not whether something works, but why it works, what conditions it requires, what can be trimmed and what cannot be compromised
- Imagine what it would look like at scale: to reach many more people, how big and complex would the organisation need to become; who would staff it, and who would pay for it
- Consider the minimum threshold of quality a program needs, and what level of control is necessary to ensure it
The answers to these questions will, to a large extent, determine the path to scale. But what became clear in our case studies is that these questions are never resolved. The answers are constantly shifting as people experiment, observe and refine.
First, we looked at Reach Up, a home-visiting early childhood development program that was created in Jamaica with remarkable effects. Its ongoing path to scale shows the challenge of going from a very small, tightly-controlled and researcher-led program to something that governments can deliver effectively and cheaply at the national level. In the end, it highlights the importance of finding the core of a program — and just how different the delivery model can look in different contexts.
Then there was the Graduation Approach, the only proven way out of extreme poverty. It needs to scale enormously to hit the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to end all poverty. But it doesn’t lend itself to scale: it’s complex, personalised, long-term and expensive. If you design such a full package, perhaps it’s not surprising that it works in pilots everywhere. The challenge is finding a way to scale it and retain that impact — something they’re trying to achieve in part through technological innovations.
And finally there was the Studio School franchise in the UK. This alternative secondary education aspires to marry the academic and vocational tracks in education, providing a place to learn by doing, rather than memorising. It’s an example of scaling something relatively complex, and doing so in a crowded environment: the UK already has many schools.
The results have been mixed, and in the end it underlines that scaling is not just about getting your program right in isolation — it’s also about political and financial survival in the wider world.
Each of them, to varying degrees, had a plan for scale. None of them kept to it. They had to observe and react to changes in the environment their programs were embedded in.
And the importance of that wider system was something that came out time and again in our conversations. A program-driven approach to scaling up will only get you so far — it needs to be complemented by thoughtful analysis of the system its embedded in, and a push to change it.
“In our early years, we focused on scaling programs,” said Hilary Pennington, Executive Vice President at the Ford Foundation. “Now we see that scaling programs is only a piece of what’s necessary. So Ford has been freed to work further upstream, to ask bigger questions about systems and how you change them.”
Shape the system
It could be the justice system, the healthcare system or the educational system — almost every new program is born into an existing system. It will only scale up successfully if that system permits it, or if it is changed to do so.
The Studio School is a good example of a scale up that fell foul of its system. Early on it became clear that those running it were having serious problems recruiting enough students. This was partly because they wanted to recruit students at 14, whereas the norm for secondary schools in the UK is 11. It was a big problem because the government funds schools on a per-student basis.
Whether the studio school model worked barely came into it: the idea was starved of pupils and funding from the start. The team didn’t anticipate the difficulties that going against the grain of the system would bring them, and they lacked the political heft to change it.
That’s why a program-driven approach to scaling up isn’t enough. It needs to be complemented by a coordinated push for systems change. That means going beyond service delivery and thinking about gathering allies, negotiating legislative reform and changing public attitudes. Not many organisations have the capacity to fight on all these fronts — and that’s why the scaling ecosystem itself is so important.
The scaling ecosystem
The scaling ecosystem is made up of organisations that play a role in scaling up — helping to shuttle worthy innovations towards delivery at scale. These organisations could be involved in any aspect of scaling up, from funding to evidence or advocacy. But at the moment, they are lacking.
“I still think we lack the right institutions for scaling in almost all parts of the social and public field,” said Geoff Mulgan, CEO of Nesta. “There need to be some institutions whose job it is to independently judge which innovations are worthy of scaling. And that’s why we created all these What Works Centres (WWCs). That’s part of the scaling ecosystem that was completely missing ten years ago.”
Those WWCs were created to pull together all available evidence on certain interventions and share it with frontline practitioners. They also shore up the evidence base by commissioning trials. In the US, the Ford Foundation helped create MDRC (formerly known as the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation) to fulfil a similar role.
The NGO CARE saw a similar gap in the scaling ecosystem when it created its Scale X Design accelerator. The idea was not to create new programs, but to take those with proven impact on a small scale and put them through a year-long bootcamp to get them ready to grow dramatically. Initially, the accelerator was limited to internal teams from CARE, but it has begun inviting external teams.
These are just two examples of the kinds of institutions that are entering the scaling ecosystem. Sometimes, they are simply analogues of private sector institutions, fulfilling, for example, the same role as venture capital. But elsewhere, something new may be required. After all, the needs and goals are different.
On the scales
The need to scale social impact is great, and urgent. To date, many efforts have been narrow, slow and ineffective. Even the successes are nowhere near big enough. But every case has contributed learning.
As we parsed that learning for this series, it became clear that the community is moving from a blinkered focus on scaling a program to thinking about systemic scale, with the goal of shifting the rules, norms and values that makes up social systems. Without that kind of change, many scale ups will struggle. Because scaling a program against the grain of the system is like rowing against the current.
All of the players in the scaling ecosystem need to bear that in mind as they move towards the SDGs and beyond. If they want to affect real impact, they need a dual focus: both pushing the program, and shaping the system.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Phil Roeder)