Scaling up for impact

Tim Joss

Caroline Hartnell’s article in the June issue of Alliance on the Mott Foundation and scaling up (‘Life in the old model yet?’) set my mind whirring. Successful scaling up is hard to achieve and here was a foundation story with real substance and lessons. As the thoughts settled, three questions stayed with me: what does scaling up actually mean now? What do we do about a tendency to confuse means (scaling up) with ends (impact)? How do foundations know they are scaling up successfully?

It’s true that scaling up has usually meant governments paying for innovations incubated by foundations. And yes, this may now be a tired concept. But that is no reason to shelve it. If we look around, methods for scaling up are growing. ClientEarth, for example, partners foundations and uses law as a tool for social change in the environmental field. The buzz about social enterprise points to trading, growth and reinvesting profits as another tool for scaled-up social change.

New organizations are sometimes needed. At the Rayne Foundation, in the context of a massive UK school-building programme and ghastly past mistakes, I founded the British Council for School Environments to advocate excellent architecture and design for schools. Nor is the relationship between foundations and government frozen. New types of relationship are being forged such as the UK’s social impact bond which invites private investment with the promise of good returns if public service outcomes are improved.

And the old ways continue: governments still take on foundation-incubated innovations, as has happened with literacy and numeracy with Every Child a Reader and Every Child Counts. Far from ditching the idea of a foundation-government relationship, we need a richer definition, embracing the law, social enterprise, start-ups and social impact bonds, as well as the familiar financial version. We should not be surprised at this variety. Governmental power was once dominant and pervasive. Today it is neither.

This leads me to the tendency to mush up means (scaling up) and ends (impact). Scaling up has to be viewed in two distinct ways. It is a process, requiring skill and experience, the aim being to achieve wide-scale impact. But the means are not enough, however well executed. The foundation must focus on ends too. Has the scaling up delivered wide-scale positive change addressing the problems that prompted the foundation to engage in the first place?

And here’s a problem. Foundations are lagging behind operational not-for-profits on measuring social change. They require outcomes measurement of their investees. Few measure their own. While some are passionate about evaluating their impact, many feel little obligation to do so. So, a foundation may think that it is achieving impact through scaling up but, without the rigour of measurement and evaluation, who knows?

Tim Joss

CEO, Rayne Foundation

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