August 30, 2017

Scaling: How to go from x to 10x

What happens when your nonprofit is asked to scale 10x more than planned? These crucial steps can help you achieve exponential scale without compromising your quality.

4 min read

Nobody says no to the government. Most nonprofits in India—big and small—want to leverage government reach and resources, because doing so allows us to dramatically increase our impact. We also recognise that such opportunities to partner with the government are infrequent and unpredictable; we prefer not to forego them.

But what happens when you walk into a government meeting prepared to scale your programme from 10 schools to 50, and instead you’re asked to grow to 1,000 schools across several districts? Do you decline?

If you have participated in such meetings before, you know that preparation and flexibility go a long way in helping you manage the outcome. In most cases that require a dramatic operational scale up, you will also need to ensure that the following four stakeholder groups—the government, your funders, your organisation and an evaluation partner—are ready and prepared as well.


I. Navigating the government relationship better

First, before you walk into a bureaucrat’s office, remember that the numbers you are proposing must relate to the numbers and outreach that the official usually deals with. For example, you might meet with a district education officer in West Champaran, Bihar, which has approximately 900-1,000 upper primary schools. If you propose working in 100 schools (10% of the schools in that district) the bureaucrat might be interested. Yet, this number would mean little to an official operating at the state level, because the outputs and outcomes you could promise would be minuscule in relation to the state population and to the size of the problem.

Second, if you are not ready to scale up dramatically, you can buy some time to revisit your plan. So if you had planned to scale X but were asked to grow 10X, you might return to the drawing board, evaluate your original proposition, and develop a new strategy.

The reason this is important is that often, rapid scaling is accompanied by a dip in quality. So all programme aspects that have worked well thus far, including the assumptions you might have made based on your past experience, will no longer hold true.

So how should you go about it?

Select aspects of your model that are more replicable than others
One way of revisiting your original plan is choosing not to scale your entire model. Instead, you can select aspects of it that are more easily replicable; this is especially useful for organisations that are smaller in size or those that may not have the funding lined up to grow exponentially on short notice.

For instance, if you are running an education intervention that includes curriculum development, teacher training and technology, you might choose to scale just the technology or teacher training modules after taking into account both the scale and the outcomes you seek to achieve. This approach will help ease your operational burden while meeting your scaling goals.

Choose activities and outcomes that are aligned with government priorities
Focusing on aspects of your model that align with government priorities and aspirations can heighten your probability of success and long-term sustainability.


Photo courtesy: New Statesman

II. Leveraging your funders

Once you have the government partnership, you need to figure out funding to support programme expansion.

Go back to your existing funders for support
In my experience, existing funders are happy to write their grantees a cheque and assume the risk of supporting growth on the basis of an MoU with the government.

Don’t say no because you don’t have funding lined up to support the scale up.

This is because many funding agencies like to see their support being leveraged for other grants towards increasing both scale and cost effectiveness. For instance, if you indicate to a funder that the cost of running your education programme in the past was Rs 1,000 per child, but now with additional resources it will reduce by 50%, the probability of hearing a ‘no’ for additional funding is very limited.

Identify the funders that can help you reach your goal
Having said this, however, it’s very important to understand the different kinds of investments that funders make, for what purpose they make them, and at what stage of growth they choose to play a role. Funders that helped you grow from X to 10X may not be the right partner to support your expansion to 100X.

Understanding your funder’s priorities is critical to ensuring that you are reaching out to the right people at the right time. For instance, in the case of CSR, the geographic spread of your programme expansion plays an important role in funding decisions. This is because companies often like to run initiatives where they have operations or strategic future business interest; they are less inclined to enter a new state or district where they have no presence.

III. Building organisational capacity

When scaling your programme in partnership with the government, funding tends to be an easier nut to crack. The challenge is mostly around human resources and systems and processes, because you don’t have staff and you need to quickly hire as many people as possible. In addition, you need to find and train quality candidates, which is also a challenge.

The other challenge with scale is that it is inversely proportionate to quality. So, when you are quickly growing your impact, having robust systems and processes in place is key to ensuring as smooth a path to scale as possible. Systems and processes that have worked for a beneficiary group of 10,000 will not work for 100,000 people.

IV. Evaluating your processes to understand your progress

Getting an agency to review your processes while you are scaling up is your best-case scenario, because you will learn about which aspects of your programme have the most impact in the shortest time.

For instance, in a training of trainers model, you might learn that by increasing the duration of a training module from three days to nine and splitting the same over a period of time, trainers are more motivated, productivity increases by 3X and leads to a visible impact in the quality of training and intended outcomes eventually.

Knowing this is useful to the nonprofit in two ways. First, you are able to identify what works and focus on scaling that. Second, you might see overlaps with what works in your programme and what models the government is looking to support. If the government has funds for teacher training, skill development initiatives, you can be strategic in what you suggest for future partnerships.

Process evaluations are less common because they are expensive. But investing in them from the start is worth it if you are able to secure the funding. Just bear in mind that, much like funders, different evaluation agencies are suited for different levels of scale. There is no substitute for doing your homework so you find the right long-term partner to create impact at the systems level and influence policy.

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Satyam Vyas-Image
Satyam Vyas

Satyam is the founder of Arthan, a social enterprise that provides strategic human capital consulting support to mission-driven organizations in India. He has spent a decade in education, skill development, and social entrepreneurship. In the past, he has worked with leading nonprofits in India, such as Pratham. Satyam is a THNK fellow, holds a degree in Mathematics from Delhi University, and executive degrees in social entrepreneurship and leading successful social programs from Stanford Business School and Harvard Kennedy School.