“Scaling what works”—taking effective solutions to social problems to a scale that truly transforms society—has become a powerful catchphrase in the nonprofit world, and for good reason: It is our best chance for far-reaching change in international development and the social impact sector more broadly. A lot has been written about the big questions surrounding scale: What does it mean to create transformative scale? How do we do it, and when? Which programs are worth scaling in the first place?
Answering those big questions is critical. But in 2013, when our organization, Educate!, was on the verge of more than quadrupling the scope of its operations in one year, it was suddenly the small questions—the nitty-gritty operational ones—that kept us up at night. As a social enterprise providing secondary school youth in Africa with skills training and experience starting businesses, we found ourselves asking: What systems do we need to enable more frequent hiring and training for field staff? How will we manage cash flow between the office and the field? How will we communicate to a team spread across an entire country such as Uganda, the site of our early operations?
After years of developing our program model and verifying its impact, we realized that scaling up from 54 to almost 250 schools would mean effectively starting from scratch. We would have to redesign all our critical operational and management systems to serve four times as many youth. To tackle this challenge, we visited education organizations in India that had successfully scaled, reached out to private-sector peers, and learned as we grew. Since then, we’ve expanded to work in more than 350 schools and counting.
We learned three important lessons from others (and from mistakes we made along the way) about preparing for scale during this intense growth process:
1. Create organizational units that you can pilot at scale and then replicate.
Imagine that instead of a social impact organization, you are a baker with a groundbreaking new recipe and one week to bake six wedding cakes, each with six differently flavored tiers. You have a strategic decision to make: bake six bottom tiers the first day and add a tier to each cake each day, or bake a full cake each day.
The first method has an assembly-line kind of logic that can feel efficient. But there’s a catch: You won’t know until the sixth day whether your entire cake comes together using this new recipe. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to start over on day seven.
On the other hand, you can bake a whole cake on the first day and give yourself the next day to tweak the recipe as needed. Then you can spend the rest of the week baking that same cake day after day.
Piloting at scale and then replicating means baking one cake per day. We visited two NGOs—Kaivalya Education Foundation and Make a Difference—that have done just that, successfully scaling up to work with thousands of schools, teachers, and youth across India. Their experiences fundamentally changed the way we approached scaling, teaching us that it’s important to develop your “cake”—a self-contained organizational structure—first, and then reproduce it.
At Educate!, we created geographic clusters of 150 to 200 partner schools, and built management and operational systems to run those clusters as self-contained units. We operated two units at close to full capacity in our first year of piloting scale. That allowed us to understand the dynamics of how our organization would operate at full scale, and to identify and solve challenges early on. For example, we learned that we needed a new position to fill a management gap between field and office staff. Because we learned it early, it was easy to incorporate the position into our scale model.
Every organization has scaling challenges. Building a full-size unit immediately enables you to work out the kinks up-front. Once you clear that hurdle, you have a model that you know you can implement at scale. All that’s left is to replicate it.
2. Weed out “nice-to-have” data from “need-to-know” data.
When we worked in just a handful of schools, we didn’t need sophisticated systems to gather information from the field. Even our country director knew each of our partner schools inside and out, down to the names of individual students.
At scale, questions that previously had been simple—such as how many schools had signed up to partner with us—became complicated. We had to develop information tracking, validation, and management systems ranging from the very simple (assigning ID numbers to schools after realizing that we were working with three different schools called St. Mary’s) to the more complex (creating smartphone surveys to collect monitoring and evaluation data).
Educate! thrives on data, and our information wish list was huge. But we quickly learned that a system built around knowing every detail was set up to fail. The more information we requested, the less likely we were to get the information we really needed.
We learned to ask ourselves two questions about every type of information we wanted to collect on a large scale: Do we need to know it to run this program, and if so, how can we collect it from 10, 100, or 1,000 times as many beneficiaries? We became ruthlessly efficient about data collection, paring down our information wish list to a group of key indicators—data we had to know to manage performance and evaluate impact at scale, and nothing more.
3. Think creatively about improving staff capacity to avoid a trade-off between high quality and low cost.
Many organizations rely heavily on people to deliver programs. This means that reaching more beneficiaries generally translates directly to hiring more staff—sometimes a lot more. But in almost all cases, accelerating the hiring of frontline staff without adapting for scale will lead to one of two consequences: skyrocketing costs or nose-diving program quality.
On our research and development trip, we learned that the most successful organizations got creative about structuring the roles and compensation of frontline staff to scale sustainably, especially in the people-centric education space.
For Avanti Learning Centres, that meant leveraging technology to increase frontline staff’s capacity. As its operations expanded, Avanti was able to scale by filling new roles that science tutors would have occupied in its initial model with more readily available social workers armed with videos explaining science concepts. Kepler used free online courses coupled with a smaller ground team in Rwanda to create a tertiary education model that it could scale without the cost of hiring professors.
We drew from staffing models at Pratham and Kaivalya, which invested in motivated youth as frontline workers and offered experience and training as part of their compensation. We restructured our frontline mentor role from a full-time position for college graduates to a two-year fellowship program for top graduates of our program, with a stipend and continued business development training. Using this pipeline for motivated youth and offering them a valuable training program has enabled us to attract and retain high-quality mentors who bring high commitment, more relevant experience, and broad community networks at a cost that is sustainable at scale. A similar model has also worked for the big US-based program AmeriCorps and for VSO, an international organization that targets mid-career professionals looking for new skills or career changes.
Every organization faces its own human resources challenges, but scale almost always requires creative structuring of labor and associated costs. Whatever solution you choose, you will want to design and test it before you scale it.
Of course, preparing to scale means confronting many other questions that will vary from program to program. But it’s important to understand that scalable solutions are fundamentally different from other solutions at every level. If you want to scale your model, you need to have scale in mind with every decision you make. If you tackle how to scale organizational structure, data, and staff from the beginning, you’ll have a head start on where we were in 2013—and a great shot at increasing your impact.