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Scaling funds as an innovation method

To tackle problems entrenched in our societies, we need more social innovation at scale. Yet scale is often elusive and many social innovations fail to reach their potential. Nesta’s approach draws on many years of research about routes to scale, and fills an important gap in social innovation funding.

Scaling is a distinct stage in the process of developing a social innovation. This is because the skills needed and activities involved are often different from those required at other stages.

In practice, some social innovators start scaling up their innovations early on. For example, social tech innovators often aim to increase their reach rapidly, while still developing their products and business models. Others typically grow their impact steadily over time.

Nesta's work on scaling funds

Nesta has expertise not only in running scaling funds, but also in researching how social innovations can be effectively scaled. We encourage innovators to look at the different scaling routes and approaches that will help them grow or reach more people.

Our story started with a research publication in 2007 In and Out of Sync, which looks at how private and third sector organisations innovate to respond to social needs. Using a range of case studies from around the world, it developed a general economic theory of scaling for this sector.

In 2014, our Making it Big report set out the different ways to scale social innovations, helping innovators consider the best strategies to suit their needs. The report uses examples from the Centre for Social Action: Innovation Fund, a £14 million fund to scale promising innovations that used social action alongside public services to make a difference, to help illustrate the case.

Through the Centre for Social Action, we supported over 50 organisations - helping to bring about innovations that help older people live well, help young people to succeed and get more people involved in social action through smarter uses of technology. This practical work has also informed our research efforts too. In 2016 we published a report What does it take to go big? Insights on scaling social innovation, sharing the lessons and practical insights from the 50 projects supported.

Nesta continues to use scaling funding as an innovation method. For example, launched in 2016, the Accelerating Ideas Fund, a partnership between Nesta and Big Lottery Fund, using National Lottery funding, is supporting eight highly promising innovations to scale. These eight projects were all originally part of the Centre for Social Action: Innovation Fund. As such, they continue to contribute to a growing body of information about how different scaling strategies operate and what works for different types of organisations. We use the Nesta Standards of Evidence to measure the impact of these innovations.

Though rewarding, scaling up can be difficult. As part of our ongoing work, Nesta continues to identify and support organisations who are ready and keen to scale through dedicated scaling funds. We treat our scaling programmes as similar to investment funds - in this way, they often feature large amounts of grant funding but they also include a commitment to evidence and evaluation to measure impact.

Case studies

Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund

This fund was a partnership between Nesta and the Cabinet Office (2013-2016). This £14 million fund aimed to scale promising innovations that used social action alongside public services to make a difference. Some examples from this fund include:

Good Gym is a community of runners who come together to provide social support visits to older people and manual labour for community projects. It was awarded £245,000 to support the scaling up of their activities across England to become operational in a minimum of 22 areas across England.

Access Project supports motivated students from disadvantaged backgrounds progress to the top universities by matching then with business volunteers. Volunteers deliver one to one tuition, for an hour a week, aimed at improving the students academic achievements. From 2014-16 the Access project was awarded £100,963 to scale the work outside London. Data collected as part of their evaluation showed that the Access Project improves pupils GCSE grades significantly - six of nine evaluated schools can evidence a statistically significant positive effect on tutored pupils’ GCSE grades,

Code Club is a network of volunteer-led after school coding clubs, teaching young people how to build digital products like websites, animations and computer games. Code Club was awarded £859,000 to significantly scale up the volunteer-led part of the network. They now have a network of 6,750 clubs, reaching over 94,000 children and many more around the world.

Accelerating Ideas

Through the Accelerating Ideas Fund, Nesta wants to create more ways for people to age well, be actively engaged and able to build stronger local networks and neighbourhoods. Three case studies from the fund are:

The Cares Family is a group of community networks of young professionals and older neighbours who support and socialise with one another. It has identified that there is a need to expand to other major urban populations in the UK who are experiencing a similar pace of change and conditions which cause isolation and loneliness and is using funding from Accelerating Ideas to achieve their goals.

Shared Lives is an innovative form of social care based around sharing home and family life. A Shared Lives carer shares their home and family life with an adult who needs care or support to help them live well. With funding from Accelerating Ideas, Shared Lives Plus is working on an ambitious programme to grow Shared Lives for older people in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

GoodSAM is a mobile app and web platform that alerts trained responders, such as off-duty doctors, nurses, paramedics and qualified first aiders, to life-threatening emergencies close by. Through Accelerating Ideas, GoodSAM aims to integrate with more ambulance trusts and be UK wide by 2019, increasing both the number of responders and the use of the app by the public.

Nesta tools and resources

Other useful reading material