Impact Directions

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Impact Directions

Last week we defined scale and impact, this week we focus on the possible routes and impact directions. Before you move forward, it bears repeating to keep your focus on the destination ~ your goals and vision. As the Lewis Carroll quote goes, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

With your clear vision for the impact and goals to guide you, what route will you take? Fortunately for all of us, we can learn from previous explorers. A 2015 report from The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation conducted a decade long study to identify how organizations have approached scaling impact.  Their research found three key directions: out, up, and deep. These approaches are summarized in the table below:

Table 1. Types of scaling and their main strategies (from Scaling Out, Scaling Up, Scaling Deep)

Scaling approachDescriptionMain strategies
Scaling OutImpacting greater numbers.
Based on the recognition that many good ideas or initiatives never spread or achieve widespread impact.
Deliberate replication:
Replicating or spreading programs geographically and to greater numbers
Spreading principles:
Disseminate principles, with adaptation to new contexts via co-generation of knowledge
Scaling UpImpacting law and policy.
Based on the recognition that the roots of social problems transcend particular places, and innovative approaches must be codified in law, policy and institutions
Policy or legal change efforts:
New policy development, partnering, advocacy to advance legal change and redirect institutional resources
Scaling DeepImpacting cultural roots.
Based on the recognition that culture plays a powerful role in shifting problem domains, and change must be deeply rooted in people, relationships, communities and cultures
- Spreading big cultural ideas and using stories to change beliefs and norms
- Investing in transformative learning and communities of practice
Cross-cutting strategiesCross-cutting strategies were those approaches all participants reported using to scale their initiatives, and were not specifically associated with scaling out, up, or deep- Making scale a conscious choice
- Analyzing root causes and clarifying purpose
- Building networks and partnerships
- Seeking new resources
- Commitment to evaluation

The study found that organizations learned quickly that, although appealing, scaling out (impact more people) is often more difficult than it would seem.  Particularly, social impact does not replicate easily – it is unlikely that solutions can be copy-and-pasted to problems without adapting to local contexts. This adaptation takes considerable time and change. Participants also noted that it did not change the system of the problem.  Sustainable systems change is only possible if policies and institutions shift (moving upstream) or transformative change occurs in beliefs and relationships (deep impact).

With any scaling efforts, common challenges were identified – particularly around leadership and growth. Scaling may feel like mission creep to some, moving efforts (and resources) outside of direct services. Developing agreements around how to draw mission boundary lines in advance was critical to long-term success.

Lastly, scaling may not be for your organization. What matters is making a conscious choice about it. What is your approach to making a greater impact?

For Sort Sol Group, we identified three common characteristics about our past successes that guide how we approach impact by scaling deep.  First, we seek projects that have substantial ripple effects, such as involving multiple sectors, organizations, or networks. We seek leaders and organizations ready to commit to deep change.  Lastly, we seek to spread ideas and philosophies as wide as possible across all sectors, through learning like Creating Impact Together and speaking opportunities (and this blog).