Sneha Arora | 14 January 2019
In this article, we’d like to share with our readers, multiple learnings and perspectives gathered from studies on the topic of scaling up as a non-profit in India. The definition that resonated with us the most was by Vidya Shah from the Edelgive Foundation; she says “Scaling, according to us, is not simply increasing the number of beneficiaries, scaling means we do that along with growing the organisation. Scaling means change and it means investments in areas which funders don’t look at—in administration, human resources, systems, processes, and impact measurement.” 1
Scaling up doesn’t only have to mean increasing the number of beneficiaries one reaches out to, but it is a term used to define a lot of different scenarios in which NGOs tend to find themselves as they 'grow'. Social scientist, Goran Hyden, differentiates between NGOs growing up 'organisationally' vs. 'functionally'. Organisationally is defined as serving larger constituencies, i.e. the same organisation, keeping the same goals, grows in size. This, then, is the same meaning of the term as 'expansion.' Functionally means that the same organisation increases or diversifies its range of activities, regardless of size. They offer multiple interventions, instead of one, aimed at addressing the same social problem.
Several social scientists add another dimension to defining scale -the process of influencing policy. This invariably involves working with the government-whether in the capacity of an implementation partner or a policy advocator. 2
Let’s discuss this in the context of the social problems existing in India. One in every three illiterate persons in the world belongs to India-which translates to roughly over 280 million Indians being illiterate today. 0.75 million neonates (babies under 28 days of age) die in India every year -the highest for any country in the world. Much lesser known is the depression epidemic in India. Over 85 million people are estimated to suffer from depression in India, the highest for any country in the world. 3
Education, health, mental health -the list could go on. But the one common thread across a myriad of issues is the same -the scale of social inequalities in India is higher than anywhere else in the world. And that’s why scaling up isn’t an option, but a necessary condition of existence for an NGO in India.
In a study published in 2017, the Bridgespan Group along with the Stanford Social Innovation Review shared learnings from analysing 20 non-profits who scaled up their reach amidst resource scarcity.4 The lessons were interesting and summarised into 5 key ones which we’d like to share with our readers.
Stay focused on the size of the need, while remaining flexible in confronting it
If you think of a social change effort as a fraction, the denominator would represent the size of the need, and the numerator would represent what the organisation is currently accomplishing. In a country like India where the size of each social problem is so large, “denominator-thinkers” as they are called, believe that solving even one part of a complicated problem and impacting a large number of people is better than perfecting a solution that serves relatively few people.
Denominator thinkers are restless, serial innovators; which also means that very often they are not wedded to a single growth model. Their focus is not on “what they do” but “what result are they trying to achieve” -and they are often willing to change their approach to solve the problem. Denominator thinkers don’t completely disregard the numerator. They have to also focus on the “quality” of what they are delivering and not only the “quantity”. They are careful to first establish proof of impact through rigorous quarterly measurements, and only then embark on a journey to scale.
To serve many, elevate the humanity of each participant
Organisations which have been successful in scaling up, organise themselves around a unit of one: the individual beneficiary. They prioritise “people over programme”, and ensure that on an everyday basis they are thinking of all the people they serve as one common entity.
A Dignity Mindset also means that every person working in the NGO has a shared belief -that people in need don’t want charity but dignity. The one risk that adopting this mindset involves is falling into a trap of do-goodism, which generally results in an NGO spreading itself too thin.
Hence, while it is important that during scaling up one doesn’t lose perspective of an individual beneficiary, it is also important that one doesn’t get stuck on individual cases and compromise on scale. The right balance is important to propel organisations towards meaningful growth.
When scarcity abounds, reduce costs while stretching impact
Given the scarce resources that every NGO works with, there is always a focus on“cost-savings” and “cost-optimisation”. This isn’t good to have, but a necessary condition to enable scale. Often scale becomes daunting in the face of the amount of funds to be raised in order to make it often, but it doesn’t have to be so. If the flip the issue around on its head, every rupee of cost saved, is every rupee of funds raised.
NGOs like Akshay Patra have a simple articulation of this: if they can reduce the cost of each meal by 1 penny (approx Rs. 7), they can serve an additional 3 lakh children every year. As an Education NGO, are you thinking mathematically about the impact of your savings -and how efforts invested in identifying these savings, can allow you to reach more children? NGOs that have successfully scaled up have that one thing in common.
This doesn’t mean cutting down on investments that help you save costs in the long run. For example, Akshay Patra has invested in software systems for managing inventory that in the long term have helped them save on operational costs.
Tap hidden talent from unexpected sources
Talent and skills are generally scarce resources for the social sector in India. That being said, organisations that have successfully scaled up have done so by often redefining talent in terms of attitude and aptitude over skills and experience.
For example, SEWA, a trade union of more than 1.5 million women workers, lack any kind of formal training in their future fields. Leaders at SEWA know, through years of experience, that with good coaching, people who possess the values and mindsets that best fit the organisation’s culture can excel. The risk of doing this is of course that soft skills can’t see you through your job -it is necessary for an organisation to have a mix of ‘professionals” and “learners” to balance this ratio out.
At SEWA for example, the ratio is 80:20. 80% are hires with the right culture fit but inadequate skill sets, while the remaining 20% are professionals who have both the skills and the cultural fit to get the job done. What kind of a mix can your organisation sustain?
Make government a partner, not an adversary
In the view of most NGOs analysed as part of this study, the government is the most powerful lever they can pull to extend their reach. What was critical to their success in working with the government were the following three lessons.
One, getting a foot in the door when a new policy initiative is being launched by the government, allowed these NGOs to establish their credibility as the time the government most needed it. Two, ensure that the role and functions of your NGO mirror well to the roles and functions in the government system. The more closely these are aligned, the more chances of a collaborative relationship. Three, stay away from the graft. Take an unbending stand on keeping away from corruption in any shape and form. Even one bribe can dissolve your credibility and mission focus and hence it is important to know what not to do with the government as well.
For those of you interested in reading the longer version of the above study, please click on the link here.
We believe that in the journey towards scale, the first step is to take a critical look at your programmes and assess whether these are built for scale. Very often NGOs take their programmes to be a given condition and then rule out scale that doesn’t enable them to get there with their existing programme. Or, they believe that funding needs to come first and then they can think of scale. Scale, whether organisational or functional, starts with your programme’s ability to create a large scale impact. Remember the focus is on the problem you are trying to solve and not on the programme you have designed.
Assessing programme design involves understanding how feasibly can you roll out the existing programme at scale and still achieve the end impact you have in mind. In that, the true test of a scalable programme lies not only in its ability to be easily scaled up, but also in its ability to achieve impact at any scale.
This often requires NGOs to take a strong hard look at their impact. If you were asked to describe one metric which defines what change your NGO creates in the end beneficiary, what would it be?
In Education, the community more broadly defines this one metric to be learning outcomes-in specific subjects or as an overall score. Life skills organisations now go beyond learning outcomes in traditional subjects and define softer aspects like critical thinking and confidence to be the cornerstone of their work. Define your metric and track it diligently.
Lastly, amongst the other first steps, you can take is to invest in your organisation’s capacity. A common theme recounted by several successfully scaled up NGOs, for example, Akshay Patra, is investing in technology and systems and processes that make your organisation ready for scale. Having a committed leadership team, building a strong fundraising pipeline, hiring and investing in people and establishing an attractive brand & positioning are some of the key areas of building organisational capacity to be ready for scale. These are often issues that deter NGOs from growing and so having them well settled is a first step towards preparing yourself for scale. We wish you a good start in your journey to defining and achieving scale.
If you want to scale your NGO, register to become an Atma partner here.
1. Scaling education programs across India: Are we (un)learning enough?, The Alternative
2. Scaling Up NGO Programs in India: Strategies and Debates, Uvin, Brown & Jain
3. Google statistics
4. Why India Nonprofits are experts at scaling up, Stanford Social Innovation Review