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Scaling Pathways: Three Case Studies on Impact Growth in Social Enterprise

By Gurpreet Singh

What does it take to scale social impact? That’s one of the fundamental questions for social entrepreneurs anywhere. As they seek to create solutions to widespread, seemingly intractable problems, such as poverty and climate change, answering this question is as urgent as ever.

Scale, of course, is about more than growing an organization’s size, it’s about growing impact beyond an organization’s own footprint through creative cross-sector collaboration. The path to scale is often not linear and requires flexibility. Some social entrepreneurs even describe their path to scale as “zig-zaggy.”

To inform the actions of social entrepreneurs and the strategies of funders who support them, the Innovation Investment Alliance—a funding and learning partnership between the Skoll Foundation and USAID’s Global Development Lab, with support from Mercy Corps—and CASE at Duke University launched the Scaling Pathways series to gather lessons from the frontlines of change.

The series explores strategies that leading social enterprises have taken to scale their social impact. What were their scaling tactics? What were their biggest surprises and pivots? What can we learn from their successes—and failures—along the way?

The series includes Pivoting to Impact, a report that distills critical lessons learned that cut across geographies and sectors and provides information vital to enterprises and funders trying to unlock impact at scale. Key themes explored in the piece include: securing people and systems critical for scale, incorporating metrics, the importance of adaptation, the value of creative partnerships, and the importance of zooming out of day-to-day operations to take a bird’s eye view of the ecosystem and emerging opportunities.

The centerpiece of the series is a set of case studies that dives into the scaling strategies of three organizations. Two of these case studies look at Skoll Awardee organizations, VisionSpring and Imazon. All three case studies were presented in a recent webinar with representatives from each organization. The webinar can be viewed in its entirety here.

VisionSpring provides affordable eyeglasses to those who would otherwise not have access, and has experimented with different models through the years, from direct sales to wholesale. They’ve reached 3.5 million people in 40 countries to date. The case study takes a close look at VisionSpring’s pivot toward distribution through partnerships following an unsuccessful retail launch in El Salvador. “We have taken new roads several times,” said Ella Gudwin, President of VisionSpring. “Our guiding principal: constantly adapt, relentlessly improve.”

Imazon has led the movement to arrest deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions in the Brazilian Amazon for some 25 years. They’ve combined a unique data-rich research approach, innovative technology tools, and multi-sector partnerships to scale their impact. “Our secret sauce is sorting data to best engage stakeholders in particular ways,” said Carlos Souza, Imazon Senior Researcher. “To share and communicate information, we need to prepare it in different formats to influence decision-making.”

What should funders look for to fund scale effectively? “Only measuring output without looking at impact is a mistake,” said Andy Narracot, Deputy Director for Global Safe Water at Evidence Action. “Too often it’s assumed that impact is proven, but funders ought to do due diligence that links intervention to desired impact.”

Check out the Scaling Pathways series here.

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