trees of cogs

To grow or not to grow

By Cecilie Hestbaek 11 October 2013 2 minute read

Charities often run pilots on new programmes for service delivery in the UK with impressive results. But what happens to the idea afterwards?

Charities such as Blue Sky, employing ex-offenders and prisoners, and The Brandon Centre, working with young offenders, have in different ways successfully scaled up innovative approaches to specific social problems. However, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule: 84% of charities in England and Wales are relatively small, with an annual income of less than £100,000, and over half of social enterprises make less than £250,000 a year.

Is this a problem? In some cases, staying small may be the best and most effective way to operate. But for hundreds of thousands of charities and social enterprises it can mean running the risk of tinkering at the edges of social problems, competing for scarce resources whilst duplicating other organisations’ efforts and failing to tackle the issue efficiently. To live up to their ambitions, many organisations need to grow their impact and deliver their work at scale.

Of course, nothing’s ever that straightforward. A review we’ve recently done of existing literature on scaling suggests that charities lack information about how to scale their impact. Many charities have come up with brilliant models for targeting social problems and want to reach greater numbers of people with them, but never do so. A funder we know spoke of a ‘pilot and pray’ mentality among charities and funders: great attention is paid to exciting new pilot projects, but little thought is given to what comes next, beyond a hope or assumption that someone will come in and scale it up.

There are many possible strategies for scaling, such as encouraging spin-off organisations or disseminating an approach to a social problem through training or open-access sharing of knowledge. This is perhaps old news in the charity sector. But it’s less clear when charities should choose which strategy—and when they should perhaps not scale at all. There are plenty of best-case examples like those mentioned above, but very few studies are concerned with failure. Understandably perhaps, few charities seem willing to share failed attempts to scale. Unfortunately for us, this means that proof of what works and what doesn’t is slim to non-existent, and charities have little on which to base decisions about scaling.

Is small beautiful or is bigger better? What is holding the voluntary sector back from going large scale? At NPC we’ll be thinking about these issues over the coming months—so if  you have any thoughts, we’d love to hear from you! And we’ll soon be back with another blog on scale, going deeper into the alleged dos and don’ts of scaling.

There is great potential for funders and charities to expand their social impact by scaling social innovations, but in order to realise this potential, we need to start talking about what works—and especially what doesn’t.