Scaling Impact

Scaling Impact

“How do we make a greater impact?” is one of the constant strategic questions facing leaders of all sectors.  What is your first response? Often times, our natural direction is to focus on adding resources (more people, more partners, more funding) to expand the same way your organization makes an impact today.  Unfortunately, achieving sustainable, systems change often requires new strategies and approaches. Scaling impact usually means overcoming not just the barriers facing your clients today, but the underlying causes that created those barriers in the first place.

In this post, we explore scaling impact and outline an approach for determining how scaling impact may fit into your organization’s strategies. Fortunately, we do not need to start from scratch and reference several great sources for more information at the bottom of the post.

Let’s start with some definitions for scale and impact:

Scale: impact grows to match the level of need.  This definition comes from Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University. Using this definition, scale implies achieving your vision.  Scaling is the pathway to reaching that end result.

Impact: Impact must be defined by you. What is the change you are seeking? What is your vision?  What changes are necessary to make it a reality? (note: this is your theory of change, the story for how change can happen for your clients).

Here are a three examples of how definitions of “greater impact” can vary dramatically. Increase the number benefiting (e.g., everyone has access to water). Increase the depth of the benefit for target population (e.g., transformation of client or community). Increase other benefits for the target population (e.g., comprehensive well-being).  You may decide that you want ALL of these, which is both ambitious and probably true.  The challenge for setting your strategy is to determine what order and mix of scaling direction(s) you need to go from here, today, to there, your vision.  (We will explore the directions of scaling impact further in our next post.)

Before you jump further into scaling your impact worldwide, it is important to determine whether scaling is for you?  Here are some characteristics of impact that indicate scaling may be right. If the impact is …

  • relevant beyond the initial context (it works “here” and can also work “there”),
  • relatively simple,
  • clearly better than the alternatives, and
  • doesn’t rely solely on the talents of specific individuals,

…. then it may be ripe for scaling.

Two other considerations before moving forward. What is the cost of scaling? Are there other drawbacks to consider (e.g., losing your identity)?

Okay – you are making an impact today, you’ve determined you are ready to scale it up, now you need to determine a strategy for scaling. Celebrated innovation charity NESTA identified four stages of scaling:

Stages of scaling

First, clarify your aims and goals.

Begin with why. Why will scaling help you reach your vision.  Then consider what direction of scale will help you get there.

Second, establish what to scale up.

What is the special sauce that, if grown, will make a greater impact? Is it the activity and program? Is it the principles, values, or ways the work is done? Is it the entire business model?

Third, choose a route to scale.

What is your role in the scaling? Is it to influence and advise others? Is it to build a delivery network to take things further? Is it to form strategic partnerships? Or grow your organization to deliver greater impact?

Fourth, gear up to deliver a scaling strategy

What do you need to get there? What infrastructure, skills, capacities, and resources are necessary?

Fifth, go forth and scale!

Overwhelmed?  Take a deep breath, and remember, you are already on a path to scaling impact – you may just not have made that pathway explicit.

Excited to move forward? Great!  For more learning, check out these resources below. Next week we will review potential strategies for creating scale described in the J.W. McConnell report “Scaling Out, Scaling Up, Scaling Deep.”

More resources for getting started

NESTA, a social innovation charity, has a vast number of resources. Start with this one, Making It Big.

Duke University has several useful reports on scaling impact, here is one we really appreciated.


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