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Center for Social Innovation

What Do We Lose with Scale?

At this time of year I seem to be in “pitch” sessions for any number of courses, competitions, and fellowships. A criterion that is always on the judging sheet is “scale.” Clearly, as Jeff Bradach noted in his article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Scaling Impact, “Today, there may be no idea with greater currency in the social sector than ‘scaling’ what works.” 

First, we need to ask what exactly “scale” is. You can ask ten people and you’ll likely get ten answers. I find Kevin Starr's Mulago Foundation definition as good as any: scalable solutions meet four criteria –– they are cost effective, sustainable, replicable, and have real impact. However, let’s admit the term is about as vague as the Loch Ness monster. For the most part, the terms used to define scale such as “benefit a large number,” “significantly increase its impact size,” “potential for big, bold impact,” do not clarify the end goal. Hence, to one person scale means growing to serve 50,000 individuals from 5,000. However, I have met with a few funders that consider serving over 1,000,000 individuals scale; anything less does not count.  

Moving on, who could argue with the idea that bringing effective approaches to scale is the way to go? Yet I contend that an important conversation we are not having concerns what we lose by focusing on scale. Specifically, what are the trade-offs of investing in “scalable” solutions compared to comprehensive locally focused solutions? These comprehensive locally driven solutions are often ones that do not lend themselves to scale easily or quickly.  

This issue was brought to light on a recent Center for Social Innovation service learning trip to South Africa. I was fortunate to accompany 21 Stanford MBA students to Johannesburg and Cape Town for a focus on education and social entrepreneurship. We visited a number of amazing organizations such as Africa Leadership Academy, LEAP, and Awethu. While for the most part these were small organizations, they were all on the path to “scale.” These education organizations were striving to be part of scalable education eco-system. 

I also extended my stay and spent time with friends who live and work in the townships, often with small NGOs. I visited organizations that were providing locally based comprehensive services. They were often addressing critical problems such as HIV/AIDS education, after-school programs for youth, and employment and training for women, health education and more. Their issues and solutions were community driven, led by members of the community and delivered in an appropriate cultural context.  And because they were imbedded deeply in meeting multiple specific community needs, the solutions were not necessarily “scalable” to replicate or expand.   

It is well known that social issues are interconnected; health, education, environment, and economic development are all intertwined. This is particularly evident across the world in low-income communities. Challenges such as hunger, poor health and poverty impact a child’s ability to learn or engage in education. Thus, there is evidence and research that supports the need for comprehensive solutions –– which are often too complex to be “cookie cutter” scalable. Yet are they not also worthy of funding?  I hear over and over again the frustrations of community driven organizations because funders immediately want to know the “scaling” model of such organizations –– and that funders dismiss them if they cannot provide it.

Successfully scaled enterprises, such as Room to Read, Vision Spring, Teach for America, and FoodCorps, address important needs but the solutions are quite narrowly focused –– they must be in order to be replicated.  Clearly, these organizations are doing tremendous work, and it makes sense for them to focus in order to get to scale. Nonetheless, there are many unanswered questions about the trade-offs between scale and comprehensive, locally driven solutions. A few come to mind:


  • Are local areas better served when a number of organizations come in from the outside with their scalable solutions?  (one for education, one for water, one for entrepreneurship, one for health?)

  • Are efficiencies in service delivery increased or decreased at a community level by one model or the other?

  • Does the introduction of new scalable models into a community bring new positive ways of working?  

  • What type of organization tends to hire more locals? 

  • What kind of an organization does a better job at building community capacity ––within the eco-system? 

  • What model or combination of models is best for the future in terms of sustained positive change for clients and community development? 

Ultimately, I am not proposing any answers. I am merely calling for a respectful discussion. Currently anyone who voices concern about scale is often labeled as being insufficiently innovative and resistant to change. This serves no one. We need to keep asking tough questions, and not automatically assume that if a project is not scalable it’s not worth our time –– or money.


Scaling Impact Matters

I agree that thoughtless driving for "scale for scale's sake" is undesirable. But if you are doing something or selling something, and the result is "good", then more "good" is alway always always better. That this should be done in a thoughtful, reflective manner than incorporates all of the questions you pose in your article is a no-brainer. Nicola Jowell

Great pointers!

As someone who has also experienced a semester in Johannesburg and could see from closer the development and fast-development of the various foundations, aiming to stimulate the local economy, as well as be fruitful for the foreign investors, I can definitely confirm, that the way to start even answering to your multiaspect questions is to get the clear definition of what a scale is and how that definition and its different meanings, comprising the whole, can be applied to our object of development, so as what is the best strategy to be used. But I really appeciate,the questions you raised, because they are targeting one of the most pressing issues- how the foreign investors are looking on the local work forces and what are and should be their intentions, when working with the scale method in mind!

Many ways to scale

Kriss: Wow! So happy to see this! Too often we limit our understanding of scale to either the idea of growing one thing bigger or the idea of replicating one thing - and everyone who's ever been in the replication business knows that context always matters more than you think it will. I like the comments about "scaling change" and "scaling ideas" above. I suspect there's a way to understand scale as mass effort aimed at a common objective but possibly taking slightly different routes/forms. That's a way to understand scale that takes a network view - not a million stoves, a million better ways to heat! I talked a bit about this in Poland last year and the SIX Social Innovation School: (obviously, it's slide 9 - the one with the cool scale). Cheers, Another Krist(tin)

Scaled not Scaling

Provocative read and thoughtful responses; all of which go some distance to where the conversation needs to be. The current discussion is on scaling organizations and ideas, but these are internally focused if (loosely) externally catalyzed. i.e. "we know what works, let's apply it everywhere!" By focusing on the internal we do not look at what scaling to need actually looks like, nor do we respect the power and potential of existing systems. Scalability does not equal responsive nor is it synonymous with effective; but leadership does. Having the right people understand the context, explore possibilities, determine and execute on strategy is what ALWAYS makes the difference.

Increasing access as the goal

Kriss raises important questions about scale and as with every new idea, it's important to examine when and where and how an innovation is relevant. Scale isn't the answer to every question nor is "scalability" the only salient characteristic of a community initiative. However, when we identify effective practices, it's not just an aspiration but an obligation, to increase access until all those who can benefit will have access. That doesn't mean everyone should have access -- but those who can benefit. And access certainly shouldn't be limited by a family's economic status or residence. This discussion reminds us that it's just as important to examine the most effective strategies for scale as to uncover the most effective initiatives. Scale doesn't necessarily mean growing a larger organization or just replicating programs in new communities. Other strategies include practice dissemination, policy change and community engagement. New training programs, electronic platforms and public outreach may all encourage and nurture the availability of proven services much more effectively than just growing an individual program. Local innovation and continuous program enhancements are critical if we are going to scale programs and meet our ultimate goal of improving the quality of life for children, families, and communities. And we should not delay or deny services because of a fear of a solution that was "not invented here." When scientists discover a new vaccine that can prevent a serious illness, they do all they can to offer it to the people who can benefit most. In philanthropy, our fundamental charge is the same. Robin Willner, Growth Philanthropy Network

I am an architect who has

I am an architect who has worked for about 12 years in eco-construction and the feeling I get is that in East and Central Africa, especially among the poor, holistic development on a social enterprise basis appears promising under good guidance. Ideologically founded peer training, with necessary oversight, then becomes very useful to scale out programs, which, fundamentally, comprising of simple individual solutions to particular interrelated problems, are easily understood by the actuators who are local people. Once results are seen, the methodologies settle into folklore until some upgrade comes, years down the line. It is more complex than this, but that is a summary of what we are trying to do. In these parts, therefore, scaling is gainful provided the above is observed. Kariuki Kiragu

Scaling an IDEA vs a specific project

I would encourage you to consider scaling, not in terms of just increasing the outreach of a specific project or increasing adoption of a particular product, but rather in terms of the idea or approach which makes the implementation successful. In this light, I would argue that the interventions of the small NGOs you described in South Africa are absolutely scalable, and further that the NGOs SHOULD be looking to scale their approach if indeed it is a superior approach to addressing the issue at hand (whether or not they have the internal capacity to increase the outreach of their project). As a concrete example, think about the early days of microfinance. It started as an idea for addressing abject poverty on a very local level. It grew out of local hubs (traditional concept of scaling a project), but often as it was replicated elsewhere, it had to adapted for the new local context. Today there are hundreds of microfinance institutions globally, not "cookie-cutter", but each designing financial products to meet the needs of their poor customers in new ways. So basically, the idea/approach of fighting poverty by including the poor in the financial markets has scaled...not one particular project.

The best larger-scale

The best larger-scale organizations know to look for local partners who intimately know the community, whether a local set of leaders to guide the "franchise" or an existing organization embedded there like the Jacobs Center in SE San Diego.

Hybrid Local/National Approach to Scaling

The Banyan Project is pioneering a new business model for community journalism whose approach to scaling has the potential to tap the strengths of both local ingenuity and national perspective. The business model rests on the sturdy base of consumer co-op ownership, meaning that each co-op will be owned by hundreds of reader/members widely dispersed in their community. Essentially, the co-ops will be owned by readers the way shoppers own food co-ops and depositors own credit unions. But a central organization will seed and then serve the community co-ops, largely with training and with software specially designed for local journalism created by community institutions owned by community members. The pilot co-op is under development in Haverhill, Mass. Presuming that the pilot works, the strategy is to scale the way that food co-ops did, community by community, coast to coast. The central service agency seeds dispersed engagement and management while maintaining standards through the software and licensing agreements. Within this loose structure, who knows what some of the local co-ops will invent that might never occur to the national management? A writer for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab has just written about the Banyan effort: . An executive summary for the business model is at

Scaled change does not equal scaled organizations

great questions to raise! in our experience it is important to look at strategies for scaling that get others (multinationals, government regulators) to adopt one's innovation, not only looking at scale as big organizational growth.


Excellent pieces and comments. My work has been in Israel and Palestine. V difficult to show scale there because neither country have the populations of an India, say. But it does not mean the local models cannot be replicated, or that the relative small numbers affected, are not important. local AND national are BOTH important!


I'm so glad to see this (seemingly taboo) issue raised. Scale has become embedded in the social enterprise lexicon as one of the unquestionable touchstones -- along with "sustainability" and "impact" (terms perhaps even harder to pin down than "scale"). Scale almost always implies standardization -- how else can we reach large numbers of clients in an efficient and financially sound way? But standardization comes with a price, especially in terms of the complexity of services offered and the degree of responsiveness to clients. While there are many positive lessons for the field of social enterprise to glean from microfinance, there are also several negative ones -- and Maximizing for Scale is foremost. It is indeed possible to reach millions of poor and low-income households with credit (Scale), and in the process to generate (at times extremely high) profits (Sustainability). But what can suffer is what led us all into microfinance (and social enterprise more broadly) in the first place: providing genuine solutions that address poor clients’ underlying problems (Impact). Scale cannot be taken as a proxy for quality or for value to clients. It is a gauge of outputs and not of outcomes. It is of course a crucial factor to consider. But we fool ourselves – and endanger the very people we set out to serve – if we do not critically examine the underlying assumptions and the potential consequences of a relentless focus on scale. - Tony Sheldon, executive director, Program on Social Enterprise, Yale School of Management

Fallacy of Composition

As the founder and Executive Director of a small organization serving a very specific community in Los Angeles, I constantly bump and bristle against the false assumption that bigger is better; often, in fact, this assumption is based upon a fallacy of composition. While one approach may work very well in a particular community, there is no assurance that it will work in another. Furthermore, there is no assurance that this model leads to more efficient work. My organization leverages relationships and community resources to run its youth-serving programs. Our overhead and costs are incredibly low given the number of people we effectively serve, and our community partners are willing to work with us on identifying sustainable options wherein we can grow our impact year-over-year without doubling and tripling our budget. We are in it for a long haul. This is not true of large, national organizations that I've seen swoop in with their giant government grants only to pull up stakes once the cash runs dry -- they sometimes behave, in short, like a corporation that has no real local stake.


Most significant, however, is the false assumption that all organizations should *want* to scale. It seems to me mere hubris to assume what works locally can and should work globally. Just as we have local storefront businesses and large, multi-national corporations, we need nonprofits of all shapes and sizes. Some of us are happy serving our local communities, however big or small they may be; others have larger aspirations. That's okay. The desire to remain small in no way correlates to sustainability. There is a propensity to get caught up solely in the large statistics and ignore significant side trends: yes, small organizations are the most likely to fail; however, those that do succeed often serve more people on less thanks in part to long-standing community and stakeholder partnerships. And some stay small by choice, not necessity.


Finally, the sweeping generalizations swirling around about small organizations that, as stated by the above commenter, have impacted the way some funders give grants are negatively impacting communities -- places and people that cannot always easily be quantified or cataloged, "pinned and wriggling on the wall." The nonprofit community needs to be agile, creative, and responsive in order to best serve the holistic and complex needs of diverse communities. Large funders paternalistically driving foundation giving trends based on shifting winds hurts all of us over time. Particularly when, once the trends shift again in a few short years, they will simply give up the current gambit in favor of whatever is momentarily in vogue.


Hi Kriss- Great question! A quick thought to throw in the mix.. Balle (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) is about scaling an idea (local living economies), but done through local chapters, not scaling one national organization. Perhaps less "efficient", but more impactful. Zingerman's in Ann Arbor chose not to "scale" their deli business nationally, but instead intensified their business in their local area by extending horizontally into other businesses. Pretty much the opposite of what conventional wisdom would suggest. The punch line: Natural systems are sustainable. In natural systems, resiliency is valued as much or more than efficiency. Our economic paradigm always favors efficiency. Financial system became too "efficient" (securitization, derivatives all in the name of efficiency) and collapsed. Lesson there on importance of balance. Scaling is important, but not at any cost. And not everything that is important "scales"... Best Regards, John Fullerton

I serve as a capacity

I serve as a capacity building consultant in Los Angeles (Draper Consulting Group) and this conversation around scaling proven organizations and the importance of community based organizations comes up a lot. In a community as vast, diverse, and needy as LA there is room for both the community based organization and the local site of a national (scaling) organization. In fact communities need both. First of all, in my opinion, BOTH need to remember to check egos, and often PR goals, at the door and remain focused on the intended outcome of the organization. You don’t have to work together, but you do need to be efficient with resources. Further, for a foundation to say, ‘hey national (scalable) organization, we already have a home grown nonprofit providing college access in X city, so we don’t need your proven model here,’ is extremely short sighted. Has the education gap been closed? Are all of the low income graduates, with the motivation to go, getting into college? If not, then to my mind there is still a need to be filled and room for a national organization to join the community based organizations in service. At the same time, I get disappointed when an 'expert' funder/consultant puts limitations on what is or isn't sustainable. Currently in Los Angeles, amongst some funders, there is a focus is on merging organizations with budgets under $1m because organization’s with budgets ‘under $1m’ are ‘not sustainable.’ To me that implies that community based organizations aren’t sustainable. Many national (scalable) organizations have local site operating budgets of under $1m. So should organizations like Peer Health Exchange or Breakthrough Collaborative merge with other entities? I say, no. A key to replicating a proven model and scaling impact is using a community driven process that engages funders, programmatic partners, and the constituency served along the way so that a model isn’t put upon a community, but rather is led by a community that wants to see systemic change. Raising A Reader has done a great job of using this approach.


Salient and timely comment. Would that all well-meaning funders and their donor board members were reading this and seriously considering your excellent questions. Thanks!

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