Seven steps to success in scaling social programmes

| July 1, 2024

“You can get lucky with a program, and stumble into something that works. But you will never stumble into successfully scaling a program.”
– Co-design participant.

Scaling programs is hard. Showing the evidence that a program should be scaled, that it works, gaining support and securing funding are all difficult. And, consequently, many programs that could be scaled … aren’t.

Many programs developed and piloted to solve social problems don’t work. It’s actually a minority of programs that are found to be successful.

Even when programs are trialled, piloted, and found to work, many are then not scaled. They’re not expanded to reach more people, or different groups or populations. They’re not rolled out to benefit the people for whom they were designed.

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Scaling is the process of extending the reach and impact of successful interventions, ensuring they can benefit a larger population and address issues at a broader scale.

Innovation and developing new programs is expensive and uncertain. Most innovations fail, and most ideas don’t work, and will never be taken up or put into action.

This makes it even more important to scale those ideas that do work. Not to mention that scaling represents an opportunity to see a return on investment for developing innovations.

But programs aren’t scaled for a number of reasons, including funding challenges, changes in program implementation, and the well-established difficulty of maintaining effectiveness when transitioning to a larger scale.

According to John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, 50-90% of all pilot programs fail to work at scale, often due to the belief that an idea is more scalable than it actually is, resulting in overspending and sunk costs.

Scaling up a program may also change how it’s implemented, making it more difficult to maintain its effectiveness.

For example, a pilot program may have involved a dedicated program manager who drove engagement with the program. Having a single central person is often not feasible in rolling out programs at scale, and if a program’s effectiveness is dependent on particular resources or resource intensive activities, it can be challenging to maintain this element at scale.

Why is scaling hard?

Scaling is difficult. Expanding a program comes with a number of challenges. It can be difficult to identify which aspects of a program were key to its success and need to be maintained during the scaling process.

Programs may not scale because the pilot programs were flawed, they were run with small groups that aren’t representative of the groups we want to scale to, or who are different geographically or demographically.

Or, sometimes, the people involved in the pilot program were motivated and engaged in a way that the broader population is not, so the program at scale doesn’t gain enough traction.

Therefore, pilot programs need to be carefully designed and evaluated to ensure the evidence used to inform a decision to scale is based on the right evidence. Pilot programs will sometimes recruit those who are easiest to access or gain participation from, sometimes driven by selection bias, but those groups are not representative.

How can we ensure better scaling?

Our free online resource, Toolkit for Scaling Social Innovations, was developed out of a year’s worth of research, and co-designed with practitioners involved in social program delivery. It outlines a seven-step process to support program managers and social innovators as they look to expand a program, or to design a program with the potential to be delivered at scale.

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The toolkit breaks the process into three phases – the planning phase, the design phase, and the implementation phase. It includes seven individual tools that provide scaffolding to assist program designers and managers (and others) to navigate scaling and avoid common pitfalls.

This includes understanding the explicit intent of scaling and the program, and evaluating alternative routes to scaling to ensure the chosen pathway is aligned with the goals of the program.

One tool that participants found particularly useful was setting a vision for scaling that provides a scaffold for users to unpack why they’re scaling, what successful expansion looks like, and how long it will take to achieve.

The toolkit also provides support for identifying which elements of the program are key to its success, and how to evaluate if and how these elements can be scaled.

Further, in the design phase, there are explicit questions to guide users in picking the right program elements.

Programs often don’t look exactly the same from the pilot version to a scaled-up version, and picking the elements that are central to its success is critical for a scaled version to work.

The route to designing an expanded program is multifaceted, and isn’t one-size-fits-all. Depending on the program’s unique needs and circumstances, it might be appropriate to begin with understanding what’s already proven effective, or by evaluating the skills and capacity of the current network.

As one of our co-design participants commented: “If you begin with the end in mind, you’re much more likely to get the fundamentals right, whether the program stays small or expands.”

Scaling doesn’t happen by accident, and the development of this toolkit will hopefully provide insights and strategy to increase the impact of programs that have the potential to benefit more people and communities.

This article was published by Lens.