Record-breaking heat and hurricanes. Refugees with no place to go. Increasing income inequality in some of the world’s wealthiest countries. At the roots of these tremendous problems are a tangle of causes that demand massive, coordinated action from a multitude of actors—they demand social innovation at scale.
Given the urgency and intensity of today’s social problems, funders are eager to discover proven solutions that can be quickly implemented and scaled up. Inspired by the technological tools and rapid-fire timelines of our era, many funders are looking for the Airbnb or Facebook of social innovation. Unfortunately, there’s a tremendous gap between the expectations of funders and the reality that innovators and changemakers face each day. The resources, ecosystems, and prospects for growth at a company like Facebook are vastly different than those available for those who work on social innovations like microfinance and emissions trading. (For more analysis of how microfinance and emissions trading scaled up, see these two case studies.)
Our goal was to understand the patterns that enable social innovations to scale up. We drew from research and practices over the past decade at Stanford University’s Center for Social Innovation; at SI-Drive, a European Union-based initiative to advance social innovation on a global scale; and at Tides, a philanthropic partner and nonprofit accelerator that works with funders and changemakers across the world.
We studied the emergence and scaling up of ten social innovations that have shifted the status quo for society’s benefit rather than individual gain. (The definition we use for social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, or sustainable than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole, rather than to private individuals.)
Each innovation traversed a different path to reach exponentially more people and expand to new geographies. We studied the challenges and inflection points as each innovation built momentum and identified three barriers that prevented them from scaling up. We found that these barriers were most troublesome between the piloting phase and the scaling phase of a social innovation’s evolution, creating what we call a “stagnation chasm,” where proven ideas get stuck before they are able to maximize their impact.
This article is a call for deeper analysis, understanding, and action to overcome the barriers that stunt proven social innovations from reaching maximum impact. Although there is no universal formula and no one has all the answers, we as a field have more knowledge than ever before. We have more data, deeper insights, and richer case studies to inform our work. The field continues to grow with an ever-expanding circle of changemakers, funders, and partners noticing what works and what doesn’t, and exchanging lessons learned.
By proposing the stagnation chasm as a framework for understanding needs in the field, highlighting promising solutions, and suggesting steps forward, we hope to encourage additional research and on-the-ground experimentation among funders who seek to increase the pace of progress toward a more just, sustainable, and prosperous world for everyone.
What Do We Mean by Scale?
There isn’t a universal definition of scale. Duke University’s Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship has proposed that “social innovations have scaled when their impact grows to match the level of need.” Jeffrey Bradach, managing partner and co-founder of The Bridgespan Group, provides an alternate perspective on scale: “How can we get 100x the impact with only a 2x change in the size of the organization?”
By design, we did not set a precise definition of scale in our research, because we wanted to explore the factors that had been important for a broad range of social innovations to achieve widespread impact over the past 30 years. Scaling impact can look different for different innovations.