Impact At Scale

The Beeck Center engages global leaders to drive social change at scale.

Moving from Social Innovation to Scaling Impact

By Sonal Shah, Executive Director

May 26, 2017

As another academic year comes to a close, we are reflecting on the Beeck Center’s first three years here at Georgetown. In particular, I have been thinking a lot of about our experience teaching students in our spring seminar, Social Impact@Scale, an annual course that we piloted in 2015 and that has since engaged over 60 students in partnering with social sector organizations to help scale their impact.

When we launched the Center, we imagined a class to teach undergraduates how to scale social innovation through hands-on problem-solving. We sought out organizations, both domestically and internationally, as ‘clients’ for the class who would bring scale-related challenges for students to solve. We built cases around those organizations and introduced students to the steps of defining a problem. They learned how to work in teams and adopt a systems thinking approach to create interdisciplinary solutions that could be tested and iterated in collaboration with the client. Our class began as a non-credit experiment and is now a credit-bearing course that has inspired similar experiential learning models at the university.

We have gained tremendous learnings from our efforts to build a course curriculum and from our engagement with organizations and policymakers seeking approaches and strategies to scale social impact. Our instruction has benefited from the good work done by leaders in the sector, such as Social Impact Exchange and The Bridgespan Group, and our students have studied texts such as Paul Bloom and Ed Skloot’s Scaling Social Impact and Duke’s Gregory Dees on Scaling Social Impact. The course largely focused on scaling organizations, but, through their process of inquiry, the students encountered the limitations of an organizational approach to social change:

  • In 2015, we worked with a feeding program in the Philippines that fed 20,000 children a day. The actual demand was over 50,000 children per day in Manila alone. We realized that while we could certainly help scale the program, success wouldn’t be achieved by just increasing the number of children served. We needed to think about the system that was creating hunger in the first place and impacting the ability of children not only to thrive but to learn in school. Why were so many children hungry? What happens once the children get healthier? Do they leave the program? Will each successive generation of children continue to need this program?
  • Similarly, last year we worked with a rural bank in India that wanted to train one million women on financial services training. As the class developed strategies to scale the bank’s model, our students were asking important questions about the ecosystem and if the right conditions existed to sustain a thriving community of one million women micro-entrepreneurs? Will banks lend more money to the women? How will this training solve access to finance for women? Is the training itself enough? What is the broader system that needs to be affected?

In essence, our students were asking, Are we solving the right problem or the right set of problems to achieve impact at scale? And their questions were the same as the observations that we have been forming of the social sector as a whole—we need to broaden the scope of scale of impact beyond organizations and programs.

Innovative solutions alone are not enough, and scaling organizations will only get us so far in addressing the social challenges that we face as a global society. We need to unlock social impact at scale. And so now we are asking, what will it take to move the social impact movement from innovation to scale?

A key understanding, which we have discussed in our research, is that achieving impact at scale requires a systems view of change. Our theory is that scale requires an approach to change that leverages and works across a set of interdependent systems and forces:

  • Financing: via new financial mechanisms and changing the market conditions;
  • Technology: to enable more effective ways to provide better services and create feedback loops for end users;
  • Data: as a tool for decision making to reveal useful information, develop better analytical capabilities, and identify new solutions;
  • Policy: helping decision makers and citizens recognize when policy can be used as an instrument to effect broad change and when it can hinder change; and
  • People: taking a human-centered approach to solutions, investing in people throughout the system who have the skills to reinforce change, and ensuring that communities have a voice in the process.

Each of these factors is critical at different times to get to the tipping point for scale.  

This summer and over the coming year, we will begin working on this theory of scale. We will engage students and scholars in the design of our research agenda, and in the development of a methodology for teaching the theory and its application. We want to identify and learn from existing work that addresses the concept of impact at scale beyond organizations. Where can current examples of the theory be found, and what are historical models that we can learn from? What aspects of our theory hold and which ones need to be modified? What other factors exist that might help unlock scale? How does our thinking apply across different contexts? As we do this work of discovery and learning, we invite you to send us your ideas, thoughts, recommendations and/or criticism. We look forward to hearing from you!

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