Growing pains: getting past the complexities of scaling social impact

Growing pains

In communities across the UK, organisations develop new ideas to improve the lives of those around them. And yet despite growing demand for charity services, concerted attempts to take proven approaches to scale are few and far between, and successful examples are rarer still. This paper aims to bring about a change in tack by proposing a way of assessing the viability of scaling in different contexts.

In some cases, staying small may be the best and most effective way to operate. But for a large number it can mean competing for scarce resources while duplicating other organisations’ efforts and failing to tackle the issue efficiently. To live up to their ambitions, some charities need to grow their impact and deliver their work at scale.

Our research has shown that charities lack information about how to scale—when to choose which strategy, and when to pass an effective model onto public and private sector partners to take forward. This remains an area full of risk and uncertainty, and without much proof of what works, charities have little on which to base their decisions.

In this paper we explore the remaining systemic and attitudinal barriers to scale and consider what practical action can be taken by charities, funders and their partners to expand the reach of successful approaches.

The barriers to scale

The nature of the voluntary sector as a system presents considerable barriers to scale, owing to the complexity of social problems, the difficulty of establishing accurate measures of progress, and the absence of investor incentives. At the same time, there is a general lack of will to seriously pursue scale. Funders rarely fund in a way that supports attempts to scale, while charities are often of the opinion that ‘small is beautiful’—further ingrained by financial challenges. By working out what action can be taken now we can begin to overcome these barriers.

A structured approach to to scale

Some charities may have a good case for scale simply based on their context and approach—others may need to take extra steps to fully assess the viability of scale. We suggest looking at the following practical considerations:

  • Assessing the situation: looking at the context in which you are working to assess the case for scaling.
  • Evaluation to support scale: focusing on howa particular approach works.
  • Choosing what to scale: prioritising opportunities based on risk.
  • Allocating responsibility: deciding who is best placed to scale.

Scaling is not appropriate in every situation, and it cannot be a priority for everybody. But by following this approach, we hope to see more charities and funders expand their social impact.


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