You can’t ‘retrofit’ scale

Chris West

When Shell Foundation was established in 2000, we had ambitious objectives to catalyse scalable and sustainable solutions to key global development challenges. We set about doing this by pioneering an ‘enterprise-based approach’ and focusing on a range of social and environmental issues in which the energy industry has a particular responsibility. Scale has always been critical to our mission so we were particularly encouraged by the recent issue of Alliance dedicated to the subject. One of the core lessons that we have learned is the importance of selecting a partner who shares from the outset our ambition to go to scale.

While this may seem obvious, our experience has repeatedly proved that without this aligned vision, scale is very difficult to achieve. Where we have partnered with individuals or organizations who did not share it, we have found it virtually impossible to ‘retrofit’ a capacity to go to scale.

Part of the challenge lies in defining scale, which means different things to different people. We define scale as the ability to deliver cost-efficient solutions that realize large and verifiable developmental benefits in multiple locations and shift from subsidy dependence to earned income.

Credit EMBARQToday, we see some of our partners clearly achieving these goals. EMBARQ, the sustainable transport centre we co-founded with the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 2002 (profiled by Nancy Kete in the last issue of Alliance), is a case in point. We agreed during our initial engagement with WRI that we needed to replicate sustainable transport solutions in at least 3-5 developing countries. By demonstrating early success in Mexico City with a new Bus Rapid Transit system (pictured) we were able to generate sufficient traction to replicate sustainable transport solutions in other mega-cities. EMBARQ’s success was largely due to the early recruitment of a high-calibre team led by Nancy Kete, who understood both that cities are ‘customers’ and that achieving scale is a critical performance metric.

By contrast, when we have tried in the past to develop partnerships with other organizations we often encountered legacy structures and cultures that were not conducive to adopting a business-based approach to delivering quality services. Often a historical reliance on grant-based funds for implementing short-term projects was linked to a lack of willingness or ability to plan for long-term scale and sustainability based on a viable business plan. Also, high cost and often weak management structures were not aligned to achieving scale.  

As a result, we have since modified our approach to partner selection. We now look for partners who share our vision for scale and sustainability; they must have an entrepreneurial flair, a 100 per cent commitment to focus on the venture, and a willingness to share the start-up risk. We then focus on co-developing business plans rather than simply reviewing pre-prepared project proposals. And in order to provide ‘more than money’, we assign staff to work closely with them during the design and testing of the solution. This enables us to structure and deliver value-adding support more effectively.

Success demands that a venture be resourced for scale right at the start-up phase and not after the organization has been established. This means recruiting the best staff and developing efficient operating systems from the start. Without these, managing complex multi-location operations, as scale requires, becomes extremely difficult. Equally, the early adoption of efficient systems and procedures (eg IT, MIS, HR policy, branding) that reduce the cost of day-to-day operations significantly enhances the potential for scale. Jeffrey Bradach agrees: ‘finding ways to scale an organisation’s impact without scaling its size is the new frontier in the field of social innovation.’[1]

Shell Foundation has learned a lot about scale over the past ten years from both our successes and our failures and we will endeavour to continue to share our experiences in future. In October this year we plan to publish a report that outlines our own ‘scale’ journey and that shares our comparative success and failure.

The size of global development challenges is huge. We believe that progress will be slow if there is not a greater focus on achieving scale coupled with a greater understanding on the part of funders to commit resources commensurate with this vision.

1 Jeffrey Bradach, ‘Scaling Impact: How to get 100x the results with 2x the organisation’, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2010.

Chris West is Director of Shell Foundation. Email

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