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What does it take to go big? Insights on scaling social innovation

This report shares lessons and practical insights from the 52 projects supported by the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, on what it takes to scale a social innovation.

Building on our previous publications, Making It Big and In and Out of Sync, this report shares lessons and practical insights from the 52 projects supported by the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, on what it takes to scale a social innovation.

Key findings

Over the last three years, Nesta and the Cabinet Office have been on a mission to find and grow the best social innovations that augment public services, through the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund.

Scaling social innovation is rarely an easy task, but our analysis of more than 50 innovations supported by the fund has identified four key areas that every social innovation looking to scale must get right to succeed: 

  • Scaling what works - the best social innovations had a plan to ‘go big’ from the start, valued the feedback and intelligence that good evidence gave them about what to focus on, and quickly codified the core of the model, to ensure that the social impact was not compromised through scaling. 
  • Addressing need and creating demand - the best social innovations were relentless in their ambitions to improve lives for the beneficiaries, setting clear goals and creating multiple pathways to reach new users. They also had clear referral routes through public services, creating demand for their innovation and thus a clearer pathway to scale and sustainability.
  • Finding the right routes to scale - the best social innovations purposefully analysed which scaling route and approach was best for them. Four key routes to scale were identified – and in some cases, a combination of these approaches was pursued:
    • Organisational growth, which might happen incrementally and organically.
    • Licensing and affiliation to bring new delivery vehicles for a proven model.
    • Growth through partnerships.
    • Replication of the model through delivery networks.
  • Building capacity and capability to scale - by investing in new skills that growing innovations might need (like marketing and business development), continuing to engage leaders in learning, making the most of playbooks and digital technologies to make copying and operating in multiple locations easier, and more.

Although there is an increasing amount of theory around effective scaling of social innovations, there are too few accounts of the experimental hard work, systems, processes, business models, relationships, and continued changes that it takes to scale an innovation. 

This report is intentionally packed full of case studies, stories and real-world insights of the experiences of more than 50 innovations, which we hope will become a rich resource.

We also hope that by sharing these insights from innovations who are taking on the challenge of making it big, other innovators and those who support innovations (such as commissioners, funders and policymakers) will be better placed to develop strategies and create the right conditions to enable more innovations to scale. 


Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Head of Social Action Innovation

Carrie is Head of Social Action Innovation at Nesta.  Carrie leads Nesta's work on social action and people powered public services - that is the need to move from a paternalistic mo...

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