One thing social entrepreneurs have in common is that we are motivated to tackle BIG problems: systemic problems, societal problems, global problems, environmental problems. But every social innovator starts with an idea, or a discovery, or a commitment to tackle a problem—a spark that is so wildly out of proportion to the problem it’s meant to solve that the effort can seem laughable at first. Being able to be small while thinking huge is one of the hallmarks of social innovators. It’s delusion in the most productive way possible.
But of course the goal is not to stay small—it’s to grow your innovation or intervention to match the problem at hand, whether criminal justice reform or climate change. And this is where social entrepreneurs start to tackle the elusive concept of scale.
One of the most common mistakes I see aspiring social innovators make as they design and test interventions, is that they confuse two closely related concepts: scalability and replicability.
I say elusive because one of the most common mistakes I see aspiring social innovators make as they design and test interventions, is that they confuse two closely related concepts: scalability and replicability. Both are important, but the subtle differences between the two can shift strategies and impact trajectories.
Put simply: something replicable can be copy-pasted (with variations as needed) to grow impact linearly in relation to effort and cost. Something scalable can create impact at a rate that increases faster than the rate at which your effort and costs increase.
Debunking the Myth of Scale
There’s no value judgment here. Some things are replicable but not scalable—but they still very much deserve to be replicated. Direct service is often like this. For example: a homeless shelter that excels at connecting bed-seekers to additional social services; an afterschool program that builds lifelong mentorship relationships between students and volunteers; or an ocean clean-up effort that galvanizes a previously disengaged community. All of these are effective interventions that could be replicated to create more impact, but they are not particularly scalable. The homeless shelter has a fixed number of beds, the magic of the afterschool program is in that one-on-one connection, and the ocean clean-up is limited to a ten mile drive from the volunteers’ homes. The models could all be brought to new communities (new shelter, more mentors, different shoreline), but the cost structures and inputs are largely the same, save perhaps a few efficiencies in overhead.
Scale, however, looks different. Interventions that scale often involve training others into leadership, movement building, and leveraging technology to amplify impact. They involve not just delivering services but building or shifting power, seeding communities, and rewriting rules. This could include an afterschool program that trains alums to start tutoring clubs, a homeless shelter that interviews bed-seekers to provide case studies for think tanks and policy makers, or an ocean clean-up effort that includes participants’ commitment to eliminate single use plastic in their households.
Different—But Not Better
Scalable interventions are necessary for the type of fundamental, power-shifting, world-changing impact that is required to solve the social and environmental problems that we are facing. We are conditioned to think bigger is better, so we often assume scale must be the goal. But impact often runs the risk of being diluted at scale. We control the first domino that tips, and we can see the effect of that on the next one, but after that it’s hearsay. The rewards may be great, but they also may be hard to track.
In addition, when we scale efforts, we may invite or tolerate lower impact on any given individual in the system because we are impacting many more individuals overall. Scaling and supporting scale requires comfort with the murkiness of cause and effect, plus faith that the sum total of all your efforts, even if hard to track, may change the system as a whole. It requires some tolerance for ambiguity and risk.
As a sector we place a lot of value on growth and results, but scaling is often about change in the mid- to long-term, and we may have to wait for the big, measurable results and impact we seek. Growth by replication is more straightforward, and is also necessary to ameliorate the effects of societal and environmental issues in the here and now. Knowing which you’re aiming for is critical.
Both scaling and replicating are important and often complementary. To know if your organization is better suited to scale or to replicate requires reflection and analysis of your programming, constituents, and core impact. Before you decide to scale or replicate, I would recommend taking these steps first. Again, both scaling and replicating are strategic approaches to growing and organization—but be sure you are clear on which method best serves your mission and intended impact.