About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

How scaling social innovations works

Most social innovations start small and stay small but to tackle problems entrenched in our societies, we need more social innovation at scale. Many social innovations have become part of our daily lives – think pre–school education, first aid, e–petitions. Yet scale is often elusive, and many social innovations fail to reach their potential.

We see scaling as a distinct stage in the process of developing a social innovation. This is because the skills needed and activities involved are different from those required at other stages. In practice, some social innovators start scaling up their innovations early on. For example, they often aim to increase their reach rapidly while still developing their products and business models. Some grow their impact steadily over time, and others stay at a small scale for years before actively embarking on a strategy to expand reach.

Scale can be achieved in many ways. Many social ventures simply grow organically over time, slowly taking on new contracts in new regions, new staff, offices etc., each controlled by a central HQ, but others grow by:

  • Building a delivery network – franchising, licensing, federations, and issuing kitemarks for quality are all used commercially but increasingly offer social ventures easy routes to scale without diluting quality.
  • Strategic partnerships – mergers, acquisitions, using a larger organisation’s network or back office expertise.
  • Influencing and advising – moving into a role of advisor rather than deliverer in order to spread your message but not grow your organisation (for example, training people in a proven social innovation technique).

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.

Yet scaling is not appropriate in every case. Scalable social innovations tend to be ones that:

  • Are relevant beyond their initial context.
  • Are relatively simple.
  • Are clearly better than the alternatives.
  • Don’t rely solely on the talents of specific individuals.

Supporting social ventures to grow through grant finance

Many grants focus on the early stages of support for new innovations. Yet innovators can also benefit from dedicated financial support and tailored advice to pursue a scaling strategy and ensure their venture grows to benefit many more people.

Grants are non-repayable funds, a gift of money usually linked to commitments on activities, outputs or outcomes. Grants are a simple and established form of funding widely used by charities, foundations, trusts, corporate giving and some government funding.

Scaling grants are designed to provide dedicated support to the most promising innovations, to help them replicate their model in new regions or reach more people and create a much bigger social impact.

Grant finance might be used to hire new staff, incentivise new buyers, refine back office processes to deliver with a much higher volume of users etc. Grant finance would often be accompanied by work with entrepreneurs and innovators to identify the right routes to scale for them, and to support them to expand it in a way that’s impactful and sustainable.


A GoodGym runner and coach. GoodGym was supported through the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund and Accelerating Ideas

Nesta's work to support organisations to scale through grant finance

Nesta has expertise not only in running grant programmes for scaling, but also in researching how social innovations can be effectively scaled. We encourage innovators to explore 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 our first big scaling programme, the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund (a £14 million fund to scale 50 promising innovations that used social action alongside public services to make a difference) to help illustrate the case. The fund matched significant grant finance (up to £750k) with expert advice to help organisations improve their evidence of impact and operationalise their model at a new scale.

At Nesta we have decided to resource significant non-financial support alongside our grants to allow for a ‘high support, high challenge’ model, where we walk each step of a grantee’s journey to scale with them as their strongest advocate and fiercest critic. Our approach is more aligned to that used by early-stage impact investors than that adopted by more traditional grant funders.

In practice, that means we work intensively with our grantees throughout the lifetime of a fund – with regular check-in meetings where evidence and progress are discussed, ongoing mentoring and capacity building support that is often bespoke to an innovation’s needs, and a shared sense of responsibility to make introductions and find new markets for the social venture. In 2016, we published a report What Does it Take to go Big? Insights on Scaling Social Innovation, sharing lessons and practical insights in this area.

Nesta continues to use grant finance for scaling. We have also experimented with alternatives to grant finance, including conversion to equity or a loan if a social venture is successful. In November 2018 we published Funding Innovation: A practice guide, setting out the pros and cons of different finance instruments.

Case studies

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:

GoodGym – 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.

Code Club – 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, including a third of all English primary schools and many more around the world.

In 2016, we launched Accelerating Ideas, a partnership between Nesta and Big Lottery Fund, using National Lottery funding. Accelerating Ideas is supporting eight highly promising innovations to scale 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 – 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 – 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 – 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 at least nine ambulance trusts across the UK and increase both the number of responders and the use of the app by the public. Currently GoodSAM is live in four ambulance services (London, Wales, North West and East Midlands) and integration is underway for four more ambulance services, with plans to go live by January 2019.

These examples contribute to a growing body of evidence on how different scaling strategies operate and what works for different types of organisations. We’re using the Nesta Standards of Evidence to measure the impact of these innovations.

Further resources