There has been an explosion of interest in social innovation and entrepreneurship in recent years. Government, trusts, foundations, and private companies in the UK are investing tens of millions in programs to encourage social innovation every year, while global investment is in the billions.

But behind the hype, there is growing concern that focusing resources on early-stage social innovation isn’t enough to get effective new solutions to a scale where they can make a real difference.

As Mulago Foundation Managing Director Kevin Starr wrote in his article “Dump the Prizes” earlier this year, “There is way too much emphasis on innovation and not enough on implementation.”

University of Waterloo’s Frances Westley and Nino Antadze argue that it is “unwise to rely solely on a market model to understand the dynamics of scaling social innovation”.

Scaling social impact is not a simple matter of organizational growth or an increase in the numbers of beneficiaries an organization serves. It requires not just investment (important though this is), but system change that challenges the fundamental inequalities that underpin social issues. And established nonprofits can play a critical role.

In our new report, “When Bees Meet Trees,” we argue that large nonprofits, charities, and housing associations are well placed to help scale the impact of social innovations while considerably advancing their own social missions. But while these organizations are crucial to creating the conditions and appetite for system change, to date, the social innovation system has overlooked and underused them.

In the UK, the biggest 10 charities have a combined annual income of more than £4.5 billion, (about $7 billion) and the top 50 charities account for 50 percent of the sector's total income. Many of these organizations have well-established operational delivery arms, significant networks, relationships with public sector commissioners, political influence, the ability to attract private investment, and brands that inspire public trust and confidence—hugely valuable assets for social innovators looking to scale.

Despite this, we found that social innovators and established nonprofits are largely unaware of each other as potential partners. Currently, social innovators often see existing organizations as the establishment they need to disrupt without realizing that these organizations are precisely in the position to facilitate the system change required for social innovation to take hold.

To do this, established nonprofits need to set aside certain beliefs—that they are hard-wired for innovation and can do everything in-house—and realize that they could add greater value to the social sector by supporting emerging innovations developed by others.
Some large nonprofits are beginning to see these opportunities and help social innovations that originate outside their own walls reach the mainstream. These “radical mainstreamers” are leveraging their size and brand for social impact—reconfiguring themselves to play a variety of roles, which we describe as scale partners, innovation brokers, and institutional entrepreneurs in our research.

Unicef is one such example. Erica Kochi, co-lead innovation at Unicef, says: “We are built for scale. We have 1,300 staff in 150 countries. We aren’t good at early-stage innovation, but we have the relationships, networks, and expertise to be a great scale partner.”

Unicef’s innovation team has recently turned its attention to leveraging the organization’s scale-partner potential. They are seeking partnerships with foundations in the United States to advise on which of their early stage innovative projects are most impactful and scalable, and help scale the most promising innovations through Unicef’s own projects and in-country networks. The team is leveraging Unicef’s networks, expertise, and political influence to create the conditions where promising social innovations can gain traction and visibility.
Another example is the children’s charity Absolute Return for Kids (ARK), which has incubated a number of innovations from start-up all designed to achieve scale of impact. Schools and Teachers Innovating for Results (STIR), is one of the organisations they have supported. STIR acts as an innovation broker—meaning that it working with Indian schools to identify innovative approaches to teaching and classroom management. In turn, STIR works with charitable foundations that run networks of schools across India, using them as scale-partners to disseminate effective innovations to other schools. STIR aims to identify 500 “micro-innovations” in the classroom and reach more than a million children over four years through existing school networks.

Organizations such as Unicef, ARK, and the foundations working with STIR are carving out a new role for themselves, recognizing their strengths, embracing open innovation, and helping to develop the much-needed pipeline for social innovations. There are only a few of these radical mainstreamers at the moment, and we really need more.