Can we think more expansively about ‘going to scale’?


Solomé Lemma


In their heart of hearts, philanthropists want to be audacious. We want to unleash significant impact on the issues we care about, recognizing our role and power in unlocking change.

The Audacious Project was featured in the opening session of the Innovations in International Philanthropy Symposium in Boston earlier this month. It featured founder Chris Anderson, a curator at TED, and Raj Panjabi, co-founder and CEO of Last Mile Health. They spoke about their work scaling global solutions through the $100 million Audacious Project.

Social transformation is not cheap nor is it easy. I agree with Chris that social change requires more capital and there is potential to absorb large amounts of capital. Scaling the resources available to changemakers is exactly the work of Thousand Currents.

During the conversation, Chris mentioned that we can no longer continue to give small amounts of capital to a bunch of small projects. He talked about the importance of having an entrepreneur that is audacious, tells a good story, and is effective and helping that entrepreneur reach scale. If we are truly to achieve impact, he argued that we need to invest large amounts of capital in a small number of projects that are scalable.

Also during the course of the conversation, however, Raj highlighted a research project by the Bridgespan Group on 15 social transformations and how they came about, such as car seats and tobacco control. He offered them as examples of how donors can play an important role. When you look closer at these transformations, however, the majority of them were results of coordinated, collective action such as marriage equality and the anti-apartheid movement. None was a singular effort by a single entity that ‘went to scale.’

In fact, most of the deeply impactful policies and transformation in the US and around the world have come about as a result of collective action. Yes, there were leaders who were public faces, leaders who held and told the story and who inspired others. But most of the changes we enjoy today from movements that fought for civil rights or women’s voting rights or independence from colonial rule had multiple players at multiple levels working towards a shared set of goals.

So is scale about taking one project and blowing it up to unprecedented levels? How can we reimagine scale, especially when we know – as highlighted in Raj’s cited examples – social transformation requires not one idea or leader, but many?

Thousand Currents partners are part of powerful ecosystems of progressive social movements around the world. We’ve learned from our partners that scale can be depth, can be breadth, and it can be influence.

For example, our partner the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance is deeply embedded in its immediate geographic area, taking on policy makers and big corporations to keep their communities safe from hazards due to environmental racism in South Africa. Their ‘scale comes from the results of that depth of knowledge in South Durban, which they are continually invited to share at the national and international levels.

Another partner, Nari Chetana Kendra, or Women Awareness Center Nepal, has built 42 women-owned cooperatives around the country since 1992. Today, their ‘scale’ is seen in the over 45,000 women who are members. They collectively hold over US$4 million in assets, forcing local banks to change their lending practices to include the poorest members of society.

We also see scale through the global influence in our partner, La Via Campesina, which is an international peasant movement fighting to preserve indigenous farming, fishing, grazing, and land use practices that sustain people and the earth. The movement represents over 200 million farmers in over 80 countries. Talk about scale!

In philanthropy, it is difficult to escape an operating economic paradigm where unchecked growth is automatically associated with progress. ‘Going to scale’ is a byproduct of that framework. However, we as Thousand Currents are challenged to think differently about ‘scale’ by our partners. Rising inequality and ongoing extraction and pollution are also part of the current economic model, and are an important reason why our partners do the work they do.

So here’s a question I wasn’t able to ask Chris and Raj at the symposium: How do they reconcile a focus on the individual entrepreneur when history shows us it is movements that advance social change? What is the maximum, effective size for an organization or group going to scale?

What we know is that movement ecosystems, still largely misunderstood in international development circles, offers an opportunity for lasting and impactful responses to our world’s most pressing problems that even the most scalable (under-the-current-definition), project-based funding may never be able to accomplish.

Yes, funders, more resources are needed. And there are movement actors – campaigners, formal and informal groups, policy analysts, civil society organizations, individual citizens, media makers, etc. – out there navigating complex problems, dynamics, and solutions and taking coordinated steps. They may not be ‘exceptional’ entrepreneurs with lots of access to financial resources, but they are ready to absorb them.

Whether you work on women’s rights, or make health information more accessible, or open data for development, it’s important for funders to be humble and realistic about how ‘scale’ happens and how we can best support it.

As Indian gay rights activist Sandip Roy wrote about the appeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code last week:

‘This was done by ordinary people who dared to say that change could happen against all odds. This did not happen in two years or five. It happened because young men and women came together in cafes, in parks, in dingy offices…with hope in their hearts.’

In our heart of hearts, everyone wants to be audacious.

Solome Lemma is executive director of Thousand Currents and co-founder of Africans in the Diaspora.

Tagged in: Innovations in International Philanthropy

Comments (5)

Prithivi Rajmargha

"Social transformation is not inexpensive nor is it easy." Reading this sentence gives a hope moreover like an encouraging for Our Team Console Mission, an NGO started by 3 women at their retired age. They were retired but they knew there are lots to do in the areas of equality. Women and girls from birth are treated worst. Teenage after puberty (age between 12 to 14) is seen capable of marriage and parents see them as burden and better hopes to get going soon. But CoMi see them a valuable member. If girls will be well-educated, they can plant more better seeds because children are more close and follow them (Girls Not Brides research resources reveal the facts). Focusing girls, CoMi achieved success but really it took time and still it is challenging because it is a worst situation that girls could not continue going to school, a long distance during menstruation. They have to take responsibilties of households chores, taking care of livestock and working in their land growing vegetables. Somehow, if they do not get married, they must earn for family. CoMi rescued and helped to re-joined school by brining them in city from their villages. It is a hope for a grassroots NGO started independently focusing the need like Console Mission ( finding organizations that supports for long term.


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Bonnie Koenig

Thanks for this post. It's great to see the change that is slowly being made more broadly to redefine our definitions of 'scaling'. Here is a piece I wrote about this transition 4 years ago (It may be interesting to note that one of the comments at the time was "How much of the new focus on Scaling Deep is reflected by donors?" :)

Kate Curran

Very thoughtful blog Solome. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I am sorry we did not get a chance to meet at the symposium, but I would love to speak with you some time about your work in Central America? I can be reached at

Sasha Rabsey

I think we have to remember that many of the "market based solutions" to poverty are the very forces that created the poverty in the first place. Thank you Solome. You are forever one of the great thinkers. Sasha

Karen Keating Ansara

Dear Solome, I greatly appreciate your perspective. My experience in Haiti has taught me that change at “scale” has often been elusive but transformation, community by community, is achievable when grassroots organizations are equipped with resources to lead change they design and implement. Congratulations on leading Thousand Currents and thanks so much for lending your important perspective to the Symposium. Karen Keating Ansara, Chair New England International Donors

Ina Breuer

Excellent blog Solome! I think you are picking up on something I was also thinking about during the symposium- which is that systems thinking and going to scale (what ever that may be) is turning philanthropy into social movements. Not one actor or leader, but many actors of different stripes, contributing to social change. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Ina Breuer, ED, New England International Donors.

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