“The focus should not be on the way your work is delivered or who delivers it,” Jay declared as our interview drew to a close. “The real legacy remains in the innovation itself.” He was talking about his experience of community-led recycling, but the challenge he was describing was one that often troubles the wider social sector: What does it mean to scale well? (Jay is not his real name.)

We aimed to answer this question through a research project starting in October 2013. Our organization, Shared Assets, is a UK-based organization dedicated to supporting enterprising, community-led management of land and natural resources. This new and diverse sector is innovating and developing rapidly in the UK, and many land-based grassroots and community-led organizations are looking to scale-up their operations. To support them in making good decisions about scaling, we wanted to learn from the experiences of past community-led innovations.

Using desk research and qualitative interviews with practitioners, we investigated the development of five community-led social innovations in the UK: recycling, HIV services, development trusts, food enterprises, and renewable energy projects.

Through this analysis, we identified a framework of five tensions that social innovators must navigate when considering whether or how to scale their innovations. Some of these tensions felt familiar—for example, the fact that scaling and innovating are distinct processes (requiring different activities, focus, and skills), and that an innovation’s replicability affects its development. These practical tensions undoubtedly influence whether an innovation can, or is likely to, scale.

Our work also uncovered other, less examined tensions that are vital for social innovators, and those who want to see the social sector grow, to understand. These have less to do with the skills and technical attributes associated with an innovation, and more to do with the values, motivations, ambitions, and priorities of the innovators themselves.

Impact Vs. Value

Curbside collection of recyclable domestic waste in the UK was pioneered by community enterprises. When European Union directives led to new targets and legislation that required local authorities to collect this waste, commercial waste management companies began to emulate the community enterprises as a new market for curbside recycling services rapidly developed. They adopted and strengthened the collection model, and were able to out-compete the community sector when it came to securing local authority contracts. Curbside collection was scaled nationally as a result, but not by those who had developed it. This trajectory of growth scaled the innovation’s main impact—the recycling of household waste, with recycling rates in England rising from less than 15 percent in 2003 to more than 43 percent in 2013. However the supplementary social value delivered through the community-led schemes—employing disadvantaged local people and involving residents in the care of their neighborhoods—was diminished.

Thus Jay argued that the real legacy remains inherent in the innovation itself, regardless of who delivers it. He located legacy in impact, rather than value. Other practitioners, however, considered the social value of their work more important than providing wider coverage of the original service. They let private contractors take on commercial curbside contracts and found other ways to deliver social value, creating new services that allowed them to continue delivering training, education, and employment opportunities for disadvantaged local people. If practitioners can distinguish between impact and value—if they can identify whether the most important part of their work is what they do or how they do it—it will help clarify what growing well means to them and their organizations. This, in turn, will help them identify how they might best achieve this growth. (See our accompanying thought guide.)

Alternative vs. Mainstream

Community-led HIV services began as informal community projects providing care and advocacy in response to the stigma and poor treatment experienced by people affected by HIV/AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. As awareness of the disease grew, these activist-led projects received statutory funding and political support. They expanded and professionalized, serving new client groups, and delivering public health services and communications campaigns. In doing so, they moved closer to the public health system but often lost the participation of volunteers and activists, and weakened ties to the communities from which they had grown.

Forming partnerships with government, and professionalizing to meet the expectations of funders and other institutions, is often taken as a hallmark of successful scaling. Yet this kind of scaling has its dangers. The pressure to professionalize, for example, disheartened volunteers and activists working in HIV services; many left as the nature of the organizations they helped create changed. The mainstream was not for them. While some practitioners may be keen to create change by operating within existing mainstream systems, others may be driven by a desire to develop niche or alternative systems, inspired by what they see as systematic mainstream failures.

When practitioners are clear about their ambitions and values, they can locate themselves along a spectrum from alternative to mainstream (see image). Knowing where they sit on this spectrum will allow them to consider how their values may impact, or be impacted by, decisions around scaling and growth. (See our illustrated thought guide.)

Push vs. Pull

Alongside tensions associated with their ambitions and values, innovators need to consider the context in which they are developing their work. A “pull” from citizens demanding change, or a “push” from government or funders, may drive the development of their field. Many innovations begin with a pull from communities that are setting up projects to meet needs in their localities and are often encountering obstructive policies along the way. Community demand and effective campaigning can lead to governmental push, backed by policy, legislation, and funding. For example, recycling targets and legislation were an important force in spurring recycling forward to achieve the scale that it has today. The rapidity of this push, however, and some of the methods used to achieve it, made it unlikely that community-led business models would succeed. Central government funding that favored capital-intensive contracts and local authority procurement practices that bundled recycling with a range of other environmental services were much better suited to private contractors operating at a national and international scale. Easy, short term grant funding also distorted the sector, leading community projects to develop business practices that often proved unsustainable when funding came to an end. As Jay put it: “There was too much money around; people made bad decisions.” In this way, the changing dynamic between the push from institutions and the pull from practitioners can shape entire sectors.

By understanding the drivers behind their innovation, and the level and type of support available to them, practitioners can take a clearer view of the implications of accepting or refusing a scaling opportunity, and of the types of push they should be lobbying for. They can better anticipate the impact on their business model if the external context changes. Policymakers, funders, and supporters of community innovation should also reflect on their role as formative actors within a sector, comparing the current landscape with their objectives for change, and reflecting on how best to provide a push that is sustainable and that preserves important aspects of the innovation. (See our accompanying thought guide.)

The Framework

Mainstream to alternative scaling spectrum.

The themes presented here highlight how important it is for practitioners to identify and articulate their individual and collective motivations, ambitions, goals, and priorities. Taken together, they provide a framework that can help social innovators across a range of sectors answer the question: What does it mean to scale well?

We are developing a decision-making tool based on these themes that will support practitioners to look at scaling opportunities within the context of their personal and organizational values. We hope that the framework and the conversations it will provoke will put practitioners in charge of what scaling well means for them. It may also provide a useful lens for funders, policymakers and support organisations to better understand the motivations and capabilities of the organizations whose growth they wish to support.