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Problematizing Scale in the Social Sector

Systems Strategies


This resource contains an analysis of models of scaling. It can be used to reflect on the model of scale an organization is currently focused on and change scaling efforts accordingly.

The social innovation community is entranced by scale. Foundations, incubators, accelerators, governments, social investors and thought leaders are consistently driving expectations that new solutions should be designed and supported to achieve scale. But, what scale are we talking about?

Currently, there are three types of scaling movements that tend to dominate the literature: scaling-up, scaling-out, and scaling-deep. Proposed solutions that promise one or more types, are more likely to be preferred by funders than those that don’t.

1) Scaling-up consists of shifting the laws and policies of systems in order to either remove oppressive precepts, or to introduce game-changing rules that will bring social benefit to large numbers of people.

2) Scaling-out is about growing or replicating a solution to other geographic areas, including lateral scaling to new target populations.


3) Scaling-deep involves activations intended to promote transformation at the sociocultural level of individuals, organizations or communities.


Scaling-up and out are often confused and the terms used interchangeably, probably because they are fundamentally about spreading or growing solutions in order to bring social benefit to as many people as possible; they are about numbers.

Whereas these forms of scale dominate the social innovation literature, little is comparatively said about scaling-deep. Scaling-deep recognizes that there is power in transforming culture. It acknowledges that interventions at the level of meaning and culture can prove powerful axes for levering change. Sadly, there are relatively few solutions that are attempted in this space and even fewer of which are understood by funders or investors.

These three conceptual models of scale are not exhaustive and that there are additional ways to think about scale: scree-scaling and the scaling of conditions (versus solutions).

The normative privileging of solutions that can scale out or up is short-sighted and can actually impede impact.


We propose that if we are to use the language of scale—and we think it is a legitimate way to think about social impact—we add two other critical form of scale, Scree-scaling, and Scaling initial conditions.


4) Scree-scaling. This conception of scale is less about growing and spreading single solutions and more about legitimizing and cultivating many “small” ones. It represents the view that system change is less likely to occur as a result of a few big ideas than by the accumulation of many little ones.


The proliferation of local solutions not only results in more relevant services that are more likely to achieve results, but they supply the larger system with a pluralistic menu of creative approaches and they put pressure on that system to be able to sustain and support them. They also begin to shift cultural norms and expectations because there are a lot more agents driving new visions, rather a handful of visions being introduced and/or imposed by a few.


Yes, we should glean what we can from small solutions in order to share and disseminate creative approaches to complex challenges and, when we can, accomplish scale with some of them. But the signature of a worthy idea is not necessarily that it is scalable. Not every private business is scalable nor is it desirable to scale every business. The backbone of national economies is small businesses, not giant corporations, and the seduction of the growth model is as problematic in the social sector as it is within the private sector.


5) Scaling initial conditions. Within the private sector there are a range of public and private mechanisms to support and scale innovation—access to capital, data, talent and connectivity (knowledge dissemination and networking).


None of this infrastructure exists within the social sector, or at least, not in any sort of coherent way. If we want to see a verdant proliferation of solutions, and if we want to see them succeed, we need to attend to the ground that gives birth to them and that nourishes them.


With few exceptions, we would argue that the public sector, non-profits and charities lack the culture, competencies, capacities and resources to engage in meaningful social R&D. As such, the ambition for innovation is severely hampered. Social service organizations are not designed to develop novel solutions, nor to embed these solutions into their organizations and to continuously iterate them. 


If we want to see more innovative solutions, we need to scale the conditions that produce and nourish them. It’s not about a few good ideas that somehow make it; it’s about tending the ground that could produce a bounty. By building a social R&D infrastructure within the public/social sector, we nourish the conditions from which many innovations can grow and find purchase.


  1. What model of scaling is your organization aiming to achieve? 
  2. How does the notion of Scree Scaling and Scaling Initial Conditions change your perspective on scaling your organization’s efforts? 
  3. How can you communicate realistic scaling goals to your stakeholders?