Scaling Social Impact: Strategies for Spreading Social Innovations

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Strickland’s experience illustrates an all too common challenge in the social sector: How can social entrepreneurs effectively scale their impact to reach the many people and communities that could benefit from their innovations?

As policy expert and author Lisbeth Schorr observed: “We have learned to create the small exceptions that can change the lives of hundreds. But we have not learned how to make the exceptions the rule to change the lives of millions.”2 If we are serious about tackling social problems on a large scale, we need to develop more effective tools to address this challenge.

After several years of interviewing social entrepreneurs, foundation officers, and other experts on scale in the social sector,3 we have come to the conclusion that social entrepreneurs, foundation officers, and policymakers need to step back and take a more strategic and systematic approach to the question of how to spread social innovations. Too often, they frame the problem in terms of either “replication,” the diffusion and adoption of model social programs, or, more recently, “scaling up,” which commonly entails significant organizational growth and central coordination. While neither of these concepts is inherently ill-conceived, failure to place them within a broader strategic framework can blind social sector leaders to promising options and bias them toward a limited set of strategies. We hope to expand their conception of the possibilities by encouraging social entrepreneurs to consider different ways of both defining and spreading their innovations before determining whether and how to proceed. Our goal is to help them find the most promising strategies for achieving widespread and timely impact.

Defining an Innovation

It isn’t always obvious how social entrepreneurs should define their innovations to scale them most effectively. Take, for example, a learning center that has been exceptionally successful in teaching math to preschoolers. The potentially scalable innovation could be an organizational model for early childhood learning centers. Or possibly it’s programmatic – a powerful new math curriculum. Perhaps it’s a set of principles about how teachers, preschoolers, and parents interact. Before urging the creation of similar centers in other communities, the center leaders first need to think about how to define their social innovation for scale. What makes their approach distinctive? What is essential to their success? What internal or external factors play critical supporting roles? And what could possibly be changed without jeopardizing impact? If they think they have an innovation worth spreading, they must also consider how transferable it is. Will the core elements be as effective in different contexts? Are these elements easily communicated and understood? Are they reliant on rare skills or conditions? Asking these questions helps social entrepreneurs understand what is most effectively transferable and define their innovations for scale.