Social Innovation Lab

The Hidden Dimensions of Scale

When assessing pilots, people often talk about a program or organization’s potential to scale. Certainly there are factors that make some models easier to scale than others. At BRAC, the world’s largest nonprofit organization, there is a relentless focus on making models that are not only effective, but also efficient and scalable. But our current research initiative, called the Doing While Learning: Collaborative Models for Scaling Innovation project, is revealing the importance of factors beyond the model, such as organizational capabilities and social capital in the pilot’s environment. To achieve scale, organizations must do more than just replicate; they need to figure out how to survive both financially and politically. Even if the goal of the organization isn’t to scale a specific program, but to scale through leveraging champions and building partnerships, it must take action early on.

Recently we researched four programs that scaled up in South Asia to gain a deeper understanding of what successful support strategies might include. All of the programs shared a vision of large-scale and sustained change; worked with and through a variety of stakeholders; and, interestingly, were motivated by feeling as if they were part of something “bigger than themselves.” Linking local efforts to a broader national or global goal was inspiring and attracted more attention from policymakers and donors. We developed a case study for each program to capture the organization’s experience and insight from its leadership.

One case study examines BRAC’s Educational Support Program. Instead of focusing on BRAC’s own schools, which have graduated more than 5 million poor children in Bangladesh, we looked at how, via external partnerships, BRAC enables other local partners to implement its effective, non-formal school model in 4,700 schools. Independent organizations that otherwise might lack the know-how or resources for management capacity, monitoring, training, and other types of support benefit from BRAC’s infrastructure, and gain inspiration and visibility from association with a well-known, respected organization.

Another describes how BRAC’s Targeting the Ultra Poor model, proven to “graduate” people out of extreme poverty, was replicated in 10 new locations, via a learning consortium. The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) and the Ford Foundation connected participating organizations with donors and prestigious researchers such as Esther Duflo. With many organizations sharing a common mission, it was easier to attract the attention of policymakers, media, and academics.

The third case study describes Pakistan’s Rural Support Program Network (RSPN), formed to address the need for centralized functions, such as government relations.  RSPN was created by geographically dispersed organizations known as Rural Support Programs (RSPs) implementing the same rural social mobilization model, as no one organization had the time or access to mobilize resources to scale.

Urban Partnership for Poverty Reduction Program (UPPRP), a UN initiative focused on helping slum dwellers in Bangladesh organize for better living conditions, is the focus of our fourth case study. Reeling from the devastation of communities in slums during evictions, UPPRP reformulated its approach with intensive work on national urban policy development and deeper relationships with local governments.

Emerging themes

Certain elements of program or organization design can facilitate potential for scale—for example, maintaining low costs or adopting a network approach. However, our research detected a clear set of “implementation plus” or intermediation activities in these scaling success stories—enacted by a third party or by the implementers themselves.

While we saw diversity in strategy, we noticed that a few recurring types of activities were not directly related to implementation (see the types of intermediation activities chart below).

Capacity, access, and organization benefits occurred in every case, while visibility and sponsorship occurred only in some. Some of the best benefits that intermediaries imparted were not intentional. The value of each benefit clearly depends on context—capacity and organization are more focused on changing the groups that are implementing activities, whereas the other three benefits focus more on the dynamics between the ecosystem and the implementers.

While useful, there are clear limitations to historical analyses of scale-up experiences. To explore these themes more deeply, we are currently working with six South Asian organizations, including BRAC, to follow individual projects through a year of scale-up efforts. Through this project, we hope to develop frameworks and tools to inform and guide future development efforts.

This post was written by Maria A. May and Amanda J. Misiti, on behalf of BRAC’s Doing while learning project team.


 Maria A. May (@mariamayhem523) is the program manager for BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab and its Microfinance Research & Development Unit, both based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She is a co-author of Making Tuberculosis History: Community-based Solutions for Millions and several teaching cases on global health delivery published by Harvard Business Publishing.

 Amanda J. Misiti (@ajoymisiti) is a Knowledge Management and Communications Officer with BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She previously worked with the Beacon Communities, an initiative of the US Department of Health and Human Services, and served as a health education specialist with the US Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa.