The social sector is obsessed with scale, pushed by funders’ assumptions that in order to achieve large-scale change we need to replicate the projects that are achieving local change. Makes sense right? However, in a bid for funding and impact both many projects rush headlong into trying to scale without adequate planning or even understanding which kind of scale is right for them.

Unfortunately, scaling too soon, or without a clear plan can be a death knell for your current operations.

Here are three key points to unpack if you want to scale well.

  1. Know which kind of scale is right for you.

‘Growing what works’ is not simply cloning a project and transplanting it elsewhere. This is just one approach to one kind of scale, known as ‘scaling out’[1].

Leading thinkers in social change have identified 3 common kinds of scale:[2]

  • Scaling out: replicating proven models to other communities in need.
  • Scaling up: influencing laws and policies through reform in order to reach the largest population
  • Scaling deep: addressing the causes of social injustice via the transformation of cultural practices and social norms on an individual, community or organisational level.

However, this is not a complete list. Two more unconventional forms of scale are crucial to grasp if you are to avoid the pitfalls of inappropriate scale[3]:

  • Scree-scaling: a process of connecting and coordinating many small projects created by, and relevant to, a community, rather than the mass replication of a few ideas
  • Scaling initial conditions: nourishing the soil from which social change grows – investing in the infrastructure of the social sector: data, capital, talents and networks

Scree scaling is a particularly important in this list as it conceptualises scale in an entirely new way. It shifts focus away from the widespread implementation of a few solutions and instead connects and strengthens the collective impact of many small ones. This type of scaling asks small projects to connect, share and exchange, either their knowledge or resources, but does not ask them to copy one another. It is based on the idea that the cumulative efforts of many projects will be more powerful than the mass distribution of a few big ones, and that we need many agents to steer social change.

  1. Plan well, go slowly

Once you’ve decided which form of scale is most appropriate for your organisation and what is most aligned with your mission, you need to plan carefully and roll out your plan in incremental steps.

One Health’s project partner, World Wellness Group (WWG), recently made the move to scale, upgrading to a much larger premises that will allow them to more than double their client load. This move was not born from a spur of the moment decision, but rather years of consideration and consultation.

When I spoke to Rita recently, she gave me the following tips for successful scaling:

  • Get your current project working well, at maximum capacity
  • Get professional advice: business planners, social sector consultants, finance, and marketing
  • Get a solid plan together and take incremental steps towards your bigger goal. All along the way, WWG made sure that their project stayed relevant to the community and engaged their key stakeholders at every turn.
  • Wait for the right opportunity: WWG spent 18 frustrating months hunting for the perfect location to shift to. Earlier opportunities were tempting, but would not have supported long-term growth.

Rita’s opinion is that their scale up has been successful for two major reasons: slow and steady growth, along with partnerships and expert perspectives. She urged anyone thinking of up-scaling to “[not be] afraid of spending money on advice that will move a project in the right direction”.

  1. Do you really need to scale?

Lastly, it’s important to recognise that not all organisations need to grow – or at least not in the conventional sense. Staying small is no failure – it might be exactly what the project, and community, needs and as an organisation you have the responsibility to respect that. In a culture that elevates progress to the realm of the gods, we need to recognise that there are limits to the growth model. Bigger is not always better. Staying small is no sin.

Finally, remember this: scaling is less about spreading a program and much more about amplifying impact – in whichever way is most appropriate to your cause. Large-scale social change is necessary; what isn’t necessary is ‘scaling out’ as the sole mechanism to get us there. The social ecology, like the natural ecology, needs diversity, and the more forms of scale that we encourage, the more likely we are to achieve systemic change.

[1] Riddle & Moore, Scaling Out, Scaling Up, Scaling Deep: Advancing Systemic Social Innovation and the Learning Process to Support it (London: J.W McConnell Family Foundation, 2015), 3.

[2] Riddle & Moore, Scaling Out, Scaling Up, Scaling Deep: Advancing Systemic Social Innovation and the Learning Process to Support it (London: J.W McConnell Family Foundation, 2015), 3.

[3] Gord Tulloch, ‘Expanding Conceptions of Scale in the Social Sector (Part 1)’, Unground [blog], (2018) <> accessed 27 April. 2018.


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