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Growing through ‘tight and loose’ networks

Meeting with Kieran Daly from FoodCycle I can almost scoop his energy up with a spoon, it’s that palpable. He is clearly talented and has a passion for FoodCycle’s mission to connect unwanted food, spare kitchen space and volunteers to create tasty meals for people in food poverty.

Given our interest and commitment to supporting innovations in giving to scale, I went to meet with him find out more about how FoodCycle is approaching the challenge of achieving more impact across the UK without exponentially growing its core business operations. Its mission is to grow from 14 to 200 projects within ten years; but how?

Through the Open Innovation Programme, run by Nesta and funded by Cabinet office, FoodCycle has been funded to support the scaling of its volunteer-led, local hubs into new areas. One of the things that impressed me about its approach was the deliberate and mindful method it proposed.

The model that FoodCycle has adopted works for its next stage of growth and is quite neat; every new location that wants to set up a FoodCycle hub is required to raise £5,000, half of which goes toward setting up the hub and the other half is donated to FoodCycle, in return for access to the platform training manual and tools, training on how to set up a hub and mentoring from another volunteer within the FoodCycle network. A model that’s working well and Kieran believes is fostering the feeling amongst volunteers of feeling highly connected to an emerging movement.

Currently operating 14 FoodCycle hubs across the country, FoodCycle knew that its route to scale should not be straightforward organisational growth; that there were probably much more distributed ways of achieving impact that didn’t involve an ever-expanding central HQ. It has a passion to develop and grow, but like many other models being adopted by social enterprises, FoodCycle is using this approach to navigate a path of both central and local ownership and control. A network that’s both tight and loose. Others such as Good Gym, Good For Nothing and Ministry of Stories are all working with the very real challenge of growing new hubs in new localities, with a high sense of local ownership but nestled within a national brand.

To an outside observer, it feels like FoodCycle operates in a very open and democratic way. It has recently launched a central innovation fund where locally raised funds are centrally pooled and then distributed to the best new ideas across the network.  This feels very smart as it acts as a binder and reminder to the FoodCycle network that they are part of a wider movement committed to the same vision; and it builds innovation and evolution of the model into the fabric of the network. New ideas that are supported through this central innovation fund are prototyped, tested and if proven, are percolated out to everyone else to adopt as they wish.

It is also a smart move because it seeks to channel the entrepreneurial and creative presences within the network. In its early experiments with scale, Foodcycle has noticed that the more methodical, less entrepreneurial partners make more successful franchisers. These are people that are very happy and keen to pick up the model wholesale and implement it in their locality.

Some challenges for the future

The team have had some challenges with new hubs that want to create and evolve their own version of FoodCycle, or take certain bits of the model and not others. Taking time to select the right partners mitigates this, and they have spent some of their time actively dissuading some people for whom the FoodCycle model is only a starting point to developing something bespoke and of a very different flavour. It’s clear that other enterprises are continually trying to manage this too.

The question for me, though, becomes whether this model contains the limits of its own scale. Or put more positively, whether the model has an optimal scale beyond which it may begin to fragment.

The values of an enterprise like FoodCycle resonate with some people very strongly and they want to associate themselves with the brand and work in the service of alleviating food poverty. This common set of values can bind a distributed movement together quite powerfully. We see it in the Timebanking movement, the Transition Town Network etc. It fosters a sense of community and togetherness; an ambient connection to others working in other towns and places.

But at what point does scale dilute that bond? As more and more people set up FoodCycle hubs will they continue to want to do it the FoodCycle way? Will the brand perception – and reaction to the brand - change as FoodCycle grows into a charity operating at a different scale of magnitude? Will local hubs be content to donate some of the local fundraising to a central pot that may see their money distributed in a completely different place toward an idea that wouldn’t necessarily be their choice? Does scale necessarily mean appealing to a more diffuse set of values, or loosening the model to something more encompassing, that arguably would achieve similar ends?

Kieran is working with these questions on a daily basis; walking that tightrope of growing in scale; maintaining a model that has fidelity and integrity but never loses its authenticity and ownership in local hubs.

It is hard graft; although from the smile on Kieran’s face you’d never know it.


Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Executive Director, Innovation Lab

Helen was an Executive Director at Nesta and lead our Innovation Lab. The Lab’s mission is to support and scale innovation for the public good; working with partners to run innovation …

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