Learning to scale, scaling to learn


Hannah Barker


Let’s say you have a programme that is working really well – people speak highly of it, and you can see it’s having real impact. You are getting lots of demand and questions about whether you’ll be launching your programme elsewhere. You’re interested in scaling, but you also want to make sure you get it right – maintaining the impact you have seen so far, ensuring that you remain sustainable as an organisation, and being simultaneously generous about the value you can add in new contexts and humble about the lived experience and expertise that you’re lacking.

For many of you, this will feel like an all-too-familiar situation – one that you’ll have either grappled with yourself or worked through with your partners. At Spring Impact, we support charities across the globe to consider how to scale their work in a way that is impactful, sustainable, and really meets local needs. Interestingly, this is also a question that we are grappling with ourselves as we continue to scale our own work in different contexts.

Earlier this year, we decided to launch a new version of our Scale Accelerator programme in Southern Africa. Scale Accelerator is a tried and tested programme that has been running for five years in the UK, providing fully funded, long-term consultancy for NGOs to scale proven solutions to more people, in more places.

Before launching the new version of Scale Accelerator, we had worked with lots of organisations in Sub-Saharan Africa and had gathered learnings about what worked well and what didn’t. But this was the first time we had set up such a large programme in the region, setting out to proactively identify the most exciting and scalable charities that otherwise might not afford consultancy, rather than reactively responding to requests for our support from individual NGOs.

The decision to scale the Scale Accelerator outside of the UK seemed obvious to us. We knew that the programme was working – we’d seen over 40 organisations graduating and scaling their work in ambitious ways. We knew that there was incredible work happening in Southern Africa, changing lives every day, but very often struggling to scale. We also knew that there was significant demand for this kind of capacity-building support in the region (though since opening applications we’ve been overwhelmed by quite how much!)

But this seemingly obvious decision came with several tough questions. What were our ambitions for the legacy of the programme and our work in the region, considering our current funding covers just two years of delivery? How would we ensure that the programme was truly rooted in the local context? And, with the freedom to select from many scalable charities, which types of organisations should we be prioritising?

All NGOs considering scale will face similar questions to these, and there rarely are any objectively ‘right’ answers. In this instance, the ‘right’ answers for us were led by our ambition to put long-term impact, social justice, and decolonisation principles at the heart of our work.

Our vision for the future is to ensure that all non-profits have the tools, confidence, and mindsets needed to scale the impact of their work, irrespective of whether they work directly with Spring Impact. We encourage organisations to fall in love with the problem they are looking to solve and to think outside the box about who they can partner with to make a bigger dent in it, deprioritising their ego and the focus on their own organisational sustainability. Taking a leaf out of our own book, we decided that the best way to work towards our vision was to upskill individuals and organisations across the globe to use our methodologies, principles, and experience to support more effective and impactful scale in their own communities.

We’re now in the midst of recruiting associates and advisors from the region to work hand in glove with Spring Impact staff to deliver the programme. Our plan to embed associates more deliberately in the team is clearly essential to ensuring that the support meets local needs. But it is also a key way of moving closer to our vision and leaving a legacy beyond the immediate support we provide in the two-year programme.

We also know we’ll be closer to achieving our vision when the incentives and support provided by funders and intermediaries encourage charity leaders to be problem-focused and put impact front and centre. As part of our codesign and engagement process, we heard loud and clear that intermediary and funding organisations would also like support to embed scale mindsets and frameworks more effectively into the capacity building they provide to grassroots organisations, and we’re currently fundraising to provide this kind of support later down the line.

Alongside deciding how the programme would be delivered and adapted to local needs, we were lucky enough to have the freedom to decide which non-profits to partner with. From our previous work, we know which attributes point to a charity being likely to scale successfully (take our scale readiness test if you’re interested in finding out more!) But this time we were in a position to think more broadly about which types of organisations we were most passionate about supporting. In light of our values, we decided to prioritise organisations that are truly locally-led, founded and led by communities in the Southern Africa region. We hope that the locally-led NGOs we support will become shining examples for others in the region of the potential for successful locally-led scale.

Since launching the programme, we’ve been overwhelmed by hundreds of NGOs expressing an interest in taking part, as well as lots of applications for associate and advisor roles. We’ve only recently closed applications for the programme and are incredibly excited by the huge ambition and demand we’ve seen for this type of support, particularly from locally-led organisations.

But as we advise the charities we support, planning for scale is one step in a very long journey that takes many twists and turns, so we’re ready to be humble, nimble, and continue to learn.

If you’d like to find out more about Spring Impact and the Scale Accelerator programme, visit http://www.springimpact.org or http://www.scaleaccelerator.org.

Hannah Barker is Head of Programmes at Spring Impact.

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