trees of cogs

Moving past the complexities of scale

By David Bull 7 November 2014

Recently charged with researching scale in the social sector—a topic so complicated and theoretical that even the most fundamental questions are frequently disputed—I found myself at the edge of the intellectual wilderness.

What is scale and what does it look like when it is successful? Can we be sure how many examples of scaling there are, where it would be most beneficial, and whether it’s even the best way to approach social problems? Of all the possible approaches, how can we ever know that the one we choose to scale is the best? That it’s not displacing something that could have worked better? That five years later something more successful wouldn’t have come along?

In a world of perfect information, we’d have answers for all these questions. But as it stands, the theoretical (and even philosophical) aspects of scale can make it seem an insurmountable task. The danger here is that it begins to seem unwise, and even foolish, to try.

A rich body of research has been successful in shedding light on some of these questions, often concluding (inevitably and rightly) that scaling is sometimes appropriate, and sometimes not. But so far there has been much less work done to provide a structure for working out which cases are which, and to provide funders and charities with a way to assess and prioritise possible opportunities.

And so rather than trying to solve all the complexities of scale, our upcoming paper looks at what action charities and funders can take in spite of them. At present, the sheer magnitude of social problems seems to outweigh what we are collectively able to offer in response, and so getting a better handle on scaling—and taking the solution seriously—must be encouraged.

We have proposed a practical framework for assessing when scaling is appropriate, which looks at the conditions affecting the suitability of scale in different scenarios, with a recommended focus on three main areas:

  • Evaluation to support scale: focusing on how things work.
  • Choosing what to scale: prioritising based on risk.
  • Driving scale: allocating responsibility.

Charities may not always be able to scale things up themselves, but they should have a responsibility to carefully assess whether or not their approaches are good candidates for this kind of strategy, and to think about other partners that may be able to assist. Funders, too, may operate in a system that provides little financial incentive to help charities scale, but they do have a social incentive to judge whether driving scale supports their mission and strategy. Until voluntary, private and public sector funders create avenues to scale, effective approaches will not be able to expand their reach.

The complexities and barriers may never completely disappear, and so the question really is: which will do more harm; doing nothing or doing something?

  • On 4 December 2014 we will be holding an event at NPC to discuss the practical steps that charities and funders can take to assess the viability of scaling up. We will be presenting the findings of our new paper, which sets out a framework for assessing the case for scaling, and hearing about the experiences of charities and funders who have had taken on the challenge of scaling themselves.