December 6, 2018

Questioning scale as we know it

Do we really understand scale, and the trade-offs we make in the pursuit of it?

6 min read

It is a (if not the) buzzword in the world of Indian philanthropy; the holy grail that nonprofits must beat a path to if they are to qualify for support; the reason we must all woo the government as a partner. It’s almost impossible to find a powerpoint deck that isn’t peppered with the word.

The way India thinks of scale

Building a giant organisation

To many funders, scale appears to automatically imply creating a mammoth organisation that delivers services across the length and breadth of India. This approach limits interventions to those that are ‘scalable’—essentially, delivery of basic goods and services that are often low-cost, stripped-down versions of their market counterparts. It also assumes a degree of standardisation that leaves little scope for communities or other client groups to contribute to the design of the services.

To many funders, scale appears to automatically imply creating a mammoth organisation.

Funders also like this approach because of the lower transaction costs of few, large grants that allow for leaner donor teams. Many funders who draw from the Silicon Valley paradigm of innovation—whose business models seek monopolistic dominance—bring the same world-view to their philanthropy.

Related article: Size shouldn’t matter

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Government as the ticket to scale

It appears to now be universally acknowledged in the world of Indian philanthropy that partnerships with government represent the ideal pathway to scale. No private individual or group, it is argued, can begin to aspire to deploy resources—financial and non-financial—on the scale that India’s size demands. Adoption of one’s model by government is to philanthropy, quipped one donor, what an IPO is to a private sector start-up.

It’s not clear to me whether those that operate under this assumption have a plan to ensure that they have the wherewithal to influence government policy. Too many of these theories of change seem to hinge on hope rather than strategy or leverage.

Also, not much is heard about the effects of the growing dependence of the nonprofit sector on government, and the effects that this has on civil society’s ability to play its full complement of roles, including holding government to account and safeguarding democratic rights and freedoms.

What is the point of scale?

It is a truism that the scale of India’s problems requires solutions of commensurate scale. However, prioritising scale over every other consideration—equity, justice, dignity, even relevance—has innumerable costs.

Scale leans towards reducing people to passive consumers of ‘development interventions’.

Not only does that approach tend to ignore the all too real challenges of India’s diversity, it also leans towards reducing people to passive consumers of ‘development interventions’ rather than citizens who have the greatest stake in building their own lives, communities, and futures.

The pursuit of scale also privileges narrowness of focus, ignoring the reality that each issue is usually a mere symptom of deeper, interconnected factors. Unsurprising then, that each will achieve sub-optimal outcomes. Finally, this approach leads us to dismiss any solution that seems unamenable to scale on these limited terms.

Alternative pathways to scale

In limiting our thinking to the above two models, we ignore others which have been successful in India and around the world. Each successive approach outlined below requires less central control and lower resources. Apart from the intensity of the need to exercise control, choosing a strategy from among these also depends on what exactly it is one is seeking to scale—organisation, impact, or model.

1. Branching

International nonprofits with many country offices and complex international secretariats exemplify this approach, whose main advantages are standardisation and quality control.

These mammoth organisations too often resemble transnational corporations in their size, complexity and lack of agility or responsiveness. They are, however, uniquely well positioned to address global issues that mandate global solutions—climate change, pandemics, migration, tax havens, among others.


Growing gargantuan organisations is not the only path to scale; there exist successful alternatives | Photo courtesy: Flickr

2. Affiliation

This allows for a range of approaches, from social franchising to alliances and coalitions.

  • Social franchising: This model is very similar to its for-profit counterpart pioneered by McDonalds. As in the private sector, social franchising refers to a contractual relationship between a central co-ordinating organisation and multiple independent operators to provide services in a specified area, adhering to an overall blueprint devised by the central organisation. Franchisees benefit from the franchisor’s branding, operating processes, training, technology, and expertise. In return, franchisees must conform to agreed systems, processes, reporting norms, and quality standards.
  • Alliances and coalitions: From the battles against AIDS-TB-Malaria, landmines, or CFCs, to those for the rights of women, labour, and LGBTQ people among others, alliances within and across borders have proven that working together, civil society can prevail against daunting opposition.Singularity of purpose, a shared sense of threat, complementary skill-sets, the willingness to set aside brand competition and egos as well as a relatively neutral, non-competing convening body all seem to help coalitions and alliances successfully overcome the centripetal forces and ongoing friction that prevent cohesion. If we are to successfully challenge runaway climate change, rampant populism, gross inequality, and the untrammelled greed that underlies them, we will require collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Despite the potential costs of failing to do so, and the unprecedented means available to connect and collaborate, it still seems more the exception than the rule that we are able to make collaborations work.
3. Dissemination

Theoretically the easiest, dissemination is the least resource-intensive pathway to scale. However, too few organisations seeking scale via this route, design for easy replicability or commit resources to the dissemination effort. One that has is Giving Tuesday.

Conceived to promote giving on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, right after the spending frenzies of Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the United States, the founders chose to freely share the brand, the model, and their learning to facilitate the spread of the campaign to more than 100 countries, where over USD 300 million has been raised for a wide range of organisations and campaigns in just 7 years.

Related article: How do we think about scaling up?

Rethinking our strategies for scale

As India’s social sector evolves rapidly, as access to mobile telephony and the internet grow, and as citizens seek to co-create change, it would behoove civil society to re-think its strategies for scale.

“It’s only really a movement, if it moves without you.”

I’ve been known to rile nonprofit colleagues by asserting that all the sweeping, transformational change in India over the past several decades has occurred despite nonprofits, not because of them.

I’m thinking here of the great grassroots mobilisations around the rights to information, food, work, and women’s representation in local government. Springing from a deep understanding of communities’ needs, built on relationships of trust across the many divides of Indian society, fuelled by the dedication of voluntary activists, often from the communities they serve, these movements operate to shoe-string budgets and, in fact, shun external financial support.

They are not swayed by philanthropic whims or trends, live the values they espouse and are accountable only to their communities. They understand that substantive, sustainable change is an organic, human, political process not a technocratic, jargonistic, outsider-driven graft on.

From the movements against colonialism and gender discrimination to movements of and for Dalits and farmers, their pathway to scale is paved with authenticity, empathy, solidarity, and resilience. What is the equivalent of this impact in the world of philanthropy?

Must every social impact initiative necessarily scale?

It is a truism that everything must evolve or die. And equally true that growth for its own sake is the logic of the cancer cell. I know institutions that have served the needs of small, well-defined communities impeccably for decades. These include schools for children with disabilities, enterprises preserving dying crafts, and initiatives focused on the integrated needs of one slum community.

Are these not worthy of support? Is there some magical size of operation that is optimal? Is bigger inevitably better? What trade-offs are worth making in the pursuit of scale? Does the social impact ecosystem not need local organisations, with deep roots in the community, as much as mass-market brands?

An ecosystem for scale

Data from research at Ashoka CSIP, the centre I head, is revealing just how inadequate the investments in the ecosystem for philanthropy and social impact have been. We have no reliable data as a sector on which to base decision-making, or make strategic choices around scaling, hardly any platforms or networks to share knowledge, build collaboration or fashion norms, and a toxic narrative that seeks to portray nonprofits as ineffective, inefficient, corrupt, or anti-national, which is barely contested.

Scale is not intrinsically good or bad, and blind pursuit of it can do as much harm as good.

Most nonprofits operate in survival mode, unable to plan beyond a 12-month horizon, in part due to a regulatory context that penalises sustainability. From legal and financial support and from software to solidarity, nonprofits have little access to the support they need to grow, innovate, thrive and play the full complement of roles expected of them in a vibrant democracy.

In sum, scale is not intrinsically good or bad, and the blind pursuit of it can do as much harm as good, as we’ve learned from banks, social media, and any number of other private sector experiences. Growing gargantuan organisations is not the only path to scale. Technology and networks present unprecedented opportunities for scale that we would be remiss to ignore, even as converging global crises demand collaboration at unprecedented scale. Let’s be both, more ambitious and more thoughtful in our approaches to scale.

Disclaimer: Ingrid is Director, Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University. IDR is produced in partnership with CSIP.

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Ingrid Srinath

Ingrid Srinath is the founding director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) at Ashoka University. CSIP, India’s first such academic centre, aims to galvanise the ecosystem for philanthropy and social impact in India towards greater impact, relevance, resilience, and recognition. A graduate of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, Ingrid has previously served as Secretary General of CIVICUS, and as CEO at CRY, CHILDLINE India, and Hivos India. She is a passionate advocate for human rights, social justice, and civil society.