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:
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.