How to rapidly scale solutions in a crisis


Martha Paren


Non-profits, often on the front-line of the COVID-19 response, are stepping up to the mammoth challenge ahead.

Those delivering services at the forefront of the crisis – from domestic violence, to mental health, food poverty to education – are having to scale up their services to meet the sudden increased need. Others are pivoting and rapidly innovating to adapt to this new world, including moving services online. New collaborations and partnerships are being formed.

As we learn what works in these unprecedented times, scaling solutions rapidly and effectively must be a central part of the response.

However, in such a fast-moving situation, many non-profits are having to make decisions about how to do so overnight.  Without the luxury of time, there are some fundamental principles that can help non-profits needing to scale rapidly.

1. Get clear on your aims
If you are having to rapidly scale or pivot your services, it is important to interrogate your objectives, as this should influence your strategy and the actions you take.

Are you pivoting to keep income going to stay afloat? In which case doing so in the most cost-effective way is paramount.

Or are you deciding to seize the opportunity to roll out an innovation – perhaps a digital solution – that you have always believed would achieve your impact? If so, then perhaps it is worth taking the time to stop and think about the best way to do so for your longer-term impact, even if it slows you down by a couple of days.

With most teams and partners unable to come together physically, clear communication of this strategy internally and with partners is vital. Showing the thinking behind decisions and actions, and giving others a chance to feed in ideas, will help everyone feel like they are moving in one direction.

2. Focus on scaling impact
Focus on scaling up what is really driving your impact and will change people’s lives. Challenge yourself to be as lean as possible and strip out anything that isn’t essential and might slow down your scale.

Of course, this must also come with the recognition that there are some critical elements that you may have to find a way to include, even if they are hard to scale.

We suggest thinking about the core elements of your intervention in three categories:

  • What is essential and must be done in an ‘exact’ way to achieve impact?
  • What is essential but can be done in different ways depending on the situation or context?
  • What are bolt-ons – bits of your intervention that add or deepen your results, but your intended impact could be achieved without them?

For example, maybe you run tutoring sessions and group sessions to improve educational attainment for disadvantaged children. Your exact elements might include the curriculum, the structure of the tutoring session and that safeguarding principles are in place. It might be essential it is done one to one, but it could be flexible whether via video, or through regular phone calls. The group sessions might improve the impact, but you think your minimum impact can be achieved without them.

3. Agree partnership parameters
Scale is often best done in partnership, as local organisations are well-placed to deliver for their communities. In these difficult times we are seeing some really fantastic and innovative collaborations springing up across the world.

If you are creating new partnerships, there is an eagerness to hit the ground running, but taking the time to agree roles and responsibilities will prove beneficial.

This will help clarify complementarity between yours and your partner organisation, as well as reducing inefficiencies, enabling everyone to concentrate on the task in hand.

Creating key categories of activities – such as marketing to beneficiaries, or quality assurance –  can be a useful way to consider dividing different areas of ownership, or a RACI chart may provide a helpful structure.

4. Develop people-friendly processes
As solutions are scaled, the size of teams and delivery partners also grows. Clear processes and documentation, which enable others to implement or replicate your solution effectively, are critical for successful scale.

If you are not there to support people on the ground, either because of social distancing or rapid scale up, think about the processes or documents you could create to help. Focus on the problems that would most likely be encountered, or the questions people would ask. Be sure to update these documents, as new questions come in.

Remember that the content – your organisational knowledge – is what will be most valuable to people at this time, rather than how it is packaged.  While digital offers a lot of benefits, sometimes a lower-tech version that is quicker to produce, like a step-by-step guide in an emailed Word document, may be just as valuable.

5. Reflect and learn
Even with the most meticulously designed strategy, scale requires constant iteration and innovation – refining both your intervention and your model of scale up.

This is not just about monitoring and evaluation to assess what happens, but agreeing one or two key KPIs that will help you reflect and learn as you go. Draw on the different voices of staff, partners and beneficiaries to help you understand what is working or not working, what can be tweaked or done differently.

It is not realistic to expect things to go perfectly immediately, and this is particularly true during times of fast deployment. The measure of success shouldn’t be whether you got it right first time, but whether you can refine and learn, to make it as impactful as possible.

Martha Paren is a Director at Spring Impact, a global non-profit which helps organisations to successfully and sustainably scale social impact.

Tagged in: Covid-19

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