“To scale an organization’s impact without scaling its size is the new frontier in … social innovation.”—Jeffrey Bradach, Bridgespan Group founding partner

In the three years of the Ashoka Globalizer program, aimed at cracking the puzzle of how to scale social innovations, we’ve learned much about what doesn’t work and also what holds great promise. While scaling up remains the haunting, untamed elephant in the room of the social sector, we can now be more confident of (at least) pointing the creature in the right direction.

We recently embarked on a study, in partnership with the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, to study the first 35 leading social entrepreneurs (of the more than 100 we have worked with) to see what has worked and how far they have progressed with their scaling strategies. Coming from 20 different countries, these ventures comprise some of the most scaled-up social enterprises in the world (More information on the study, with detailed case examples, available on request).

The study helped us distill a set of five key principles for scaling social innovation. The Ashoka Globalizer Fellows provided these insights, and they are the proverbial early warning signals—these principles represent the direction in which nonprofits, social businesses, and the investors that fuel them will eventually head.

1. Scale impact, not organization.

To truly scale up at the rate we need to address social problems all around us, social innovators must explore spreading their ideas and impact beyond their organizational boundaries for two primary reasons:

a. When social entrepreneurs scale by growing their organizations and budgets, they eventually succumb to fundraising exhaustion. Already feeling as if they spend all their time raising money, they look with horror at the prospect of fundraising for even more operations

b. Less tangible but just as important is organizations’ realization that as the scope of their work grows, the complexities of working with each new location or beneficiary group increases faster than their ability to handle it.

Thus, the same market mechanisms and economies of scale that enable a corporation to scale in the private sector don't work as efficiently in the social sector. For example, unlike with a business service, it’s often the case that those who demand a service are not the ones with the resources to pay for it.

2. Codify, then adapt.

A critical step is to evaluate the model—to isolate its most critical elements and codify the core structure that must stay as is to achieve the desired impact. For example, is the enterprise trying to scale a specific program, product, or service? A new model or insight? Once it has identified this core and codified its components, the organization can move into building a strategy around disseminating that core. This process often enables a return to the essence of why the organization started its work in the first place—a powerful source of inspiration and renewal. However, it’s important to be flexible about things that are not at the core—these can and must be opened up for adaptation and modification.

3. Build an ecosystem to create and promote a global standard.

To ramp up impact and create long-lasting change, organizations must explore ways to set the global standard in their field. This requires building an ecosystem around the idea—replicating through partnerships, advocacy, benchmarking, corporate partnerships, and so on. This also serves to protect your idea from malicious or incompetent copycats as you open it wider and wider to the world.

An emerging trend in this area is the creation of formal training programs, particularly accredited degrees or special certificates. As we have discussed elsewhere, this creates a corps of practitioners who push for the new idea from different roles and perspectives (civil society organization leaders, academics, policymakers, etc.), going beyond the traditional train-the-trainer model toward a more expansive network of people furthering the mission.

4. Build a team of entrepreneurial problem-solvers focused on a common inspirational mission.

One of the truisms of our time is that in a world where problems are multiplying, the best approach is to similarly multiply problem-solvers. This can happen in the following ways:

a. Externally: In organizations’ network of peers, competitors, collaborators, and co-conspirators, the organizing principle should be to ensure a gradual evolution from being the center of the network to letting the mission occupy the center. Organizations then become just another node on the network, with the entire network working toward achieving the mission instead of achieving independent growth goals.

b. Internally: Inside the organization, hire people with the skills and confidence to own the mission and not just implement programs. The best metric for this is when all members of staff develop game-changing ideas on their own initiative, not just senior leadership. When this happens, organizations can move forward beyond its wildest dreams.

Co-founder of the Landmine Survivors Network, Jerry White

In 1984, at the age of 20, Jerry White was an exchange student in Israel when, while hiking in the Golan Heights, he stepped on a landmine and lost his right leg. Several years later, while working as a policy analyst in Washington D.C. on nuclear nonproliferation, Jerry co-founded the Landmine Survivors Network (LSN) to help survivors of landmines worldwide, with the realization that landmines were in fact the most lethal weapon of mass destruction in terms of casualties. Around this time, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was picking up steam, and rather than scale-up LSN, Jerry and his co-founder chose to combine forces with the International Campaign. LSN’s core contribution to the Campaign was that it spoke with the voices of actual survivors of landmines, and they were instrumental in bringing global ambassadors such as Princess Diana and Queen Noor of Jordan into the movement. Jerry eventually became one of the recognized leaders of the campaign, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Today, there are many more landmines coming out of the ground than going in, and even Israel recently passed a national law to remove its nonessential landmines. None of these global treaties or achievements would have been possible had Jerry simply focused on the organizational growth of the Landmine Survivors Network. Only by partnering effectively could he get to the scale and impact that he desired.

5. Appoint an evangelist-in-chief.

As momentum generates, a growing leadership role involves becoming a magnet to attract others to the idea. Ideally, but not always, the person who represents the face of the mission—typically, the founder—plays this role. This requires dedicated resources and attention. For example, if the founder is also heavily involved operationally, she may have to delegate some of the operational duties before she can step fully into the new role. Three obvious metrics of nonprofits’ “magnetization” is how they are achieving media attention, and recruiting demand and funding. Are reporters, prospective employees, or funders approaching the organization proactively, or does the organization have to chase them?


Dissatisfied with the speed of growth of social innovations, a number of influential voices have argued that we need to focus on how to scale impact rather than viewing institutional or revenue growth as a proxy for this social impact. (See a detailed list of studies and articles making this argument here.)

The work of Ashoka Globalizer Fellows, comprising many of the world’s most advanced social entrepreneurs, strongly supports this argument. This will mean more funding of major collaborations (“collective impact” work), and greater emphasis on building institutional infrastructure. Finally, it will necessitate a shift away from individual organizations’ cause-effect accomplishments (in any case, incredibly difficult to measure) and toward collaborative efforts that transform systems in which social problems operate.

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