Growing pains: scaling social innovations

SSE were present at the launch of a new report from our neighbours/landlords the Young Foundation on ‘the challenge of growing social innovations’. The report, titled In and out of sync, draws together eleven case studies and a fair number of academic studies, evaluations and articles into a coherent and cogent whole. It provides a useful introduction and guide to the whole issue of scaling up.

Obviously, it’s something that SSE has discussed often, both with particular students / organisations at phases of development, and also more generally from our own experience and the way the debate is framed. See previous blog posts on Scaling your replicable pilot franchise (which pointed to one of the YF case studies actually) and the Long Tail of Social Entrepreneurship for example. The latter, particularly, covers some similar ground, in that it talks of scaling up a movement and a network, rather than a small number of organisations [brief slideshow here]. There’s obviously much else been written in this field as well, from classic founder syndrome analysis (see John Bird / Big Issue in the report) to flawed business model (see Aspire) to the need to marry up supply and demand (see every successful innovation…), and, for sector-heads, there’s nothing hugely revelatory.

What’s interesting to me is that coverage of the report ( Third Sector for example), didn’t pick up particularly on the fairly direct critique of the social enterprise organisational model; more generally, it picked up on the need to share ideas, rather than scale an organisation in a difficult, flawed attempt to achieve significant social impact (which is also nothing new: it’s an oft-spoken mantra that "it’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t mind who takes the credit…"). These two paragraphs, for example, give a flavour:

"there are many reasons for being sceptical about the assumptions that social and economic goals can easily be integrated and that growing organisations is the best way to achieve social impact. Although in some cases social and economic objectives have been combined in a single organisation (as, for example, with Language Line or The Big Issue) there are often sharp trade-offs between the goals of social impact and the goal of achieving a financial or reputational return. For example, economic imperatives may point organisations towards rejecting difficult clients, avoiding risk and avoiding radical advocacy. By contrast, social objectives may mean chasing down hard problems and taking risks that others will not consider. Also, when it comes to deciding on an optimum scale, economic and social considerations can point in opposite directions. Economics provides one lens for thinking about scale as a balance between economies and diseconomies of scale (and scope). But social returns to scale may point in a different direction…

There can be no doubt that many social innovations have been associated with pioneer organisations (e.g. Amnesty, OU, Greenpeace, BRAC). However, there are surprisingly few
examples of major social innovations that are strongly associated with organisational growth
(e.g. the many innovations associated with human rights, ecology, feminism, disability rights, micro-credit or intermediate technology emerged from a huge diversity of different organisations). Indeed it sometimes appears as if innovators themselves, and their funders, sometimes risk an illusion of control, believing that this is the best way to achieve impact when often it could be achieved through looser approaches to diffusion."

Interesting stuff. As an organisation which is itself a franchise (which the report categorises as ‘directed diffusion’), it’s good to read that the wider influencing role of SSE should be recognised as growth of a social innovation in this context as well. Even if such influencing / advocacy is more difficult to measure, it’s important to track and understand (such as other organisations taking up the action learning approach for third sector leaders). And as we’ve long contended, the approach to social entrepreneurship we back is one that focuses on the outcomes, not the organisational model; on the impact, and not the methods; with each social entrepreneur choosing the structure, governance, financing most appropriate to them achieving their mission and, should the time come, the most appropriate form of diffusion / replication. As well as one that incorporates personal as well as organisational development, multiplying the potential benefits.

This report also throws down a challenge to those investment bodies and funders whose focus is on scaling up organisations and achieving a return (social or financial) based on clear metrics. In a small number of cases, this may be possible, but more innovative funding and investment may well be required…something that may look less like commercial investment than is currently the case.   


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