What does it take to make impact at scale?

A practical guide to system change and scaling social impact. 

Social Finance works towards a fairer world where we unleash the potential of communities. We tackle complex and enduring social problems to create lasting and widespread change in people’s lives.

But this work is hard. Making change happen at scale is complex, and there is no linear path or reliable recipe. At Social Finance, we are still in the foothills of the change we want to see. In some areas we have made real progress, in others we have hit barriers.

Over the last few years, we have stepped back to consider what we and others have learned about making change happen at scale. We have asked:

  • How do we define what success means for us – what is impact at scale’?
  • How can we get there? What have we learned about methodologies to achieve impact at scale and bring about systems change?
  • What can Social Finance and our partners do to practically work towards it?
  • How can we tell whether we are making progress?

This has led to the development of our routes to scale framework, our roadmap for system change, and our white paper on navigating system change evaluation.

What do we mean by impact at scale? Our definition is as follows:

The lasting and widespread change in people’s lives and society we see when products, services or practices sustainably expand their reach, when systems embed change or when society and culture shift their perspective.

Our definition is deliberately broad and descriptive. It is not about reaching a certain number or proportion of people, but about what it looks like when lasting shifts have occurred. It includes services, products or practices reaching scale’, but also systems embedding change and shifts in culture and mindsets. It deliberately allows for depth of impact (big changes for smaller groups) as well as breadth (smaller changes for bigger groups), and it reminds us that, in social change, the end goal is rarely problem solved”.

What does it take?

At Social Finance, we tackle complex and enduring issues in society, where outcomes are poor and hard to shift, but the cost of failure is high. In these issues: 

  • Change is hard and takes time – often many decades – to achieve.
  • No organisation can achieve it alone – shifting systems needs many hands and diverse, unlikely partnerships.
  • The systems are complex. Challenges are interconnected, the causes are not all visible, and they include structures, cultures, mindsets and relationships.

In our case study series, Changing lives, changing systems, we share our insights on what it takes to make the biggest steps on the journey to impact at scale. As well as looking at our own work from the past 15 years, we have also reviewed other initiatives that have made significant progress towards – or achieved – impact at scale. We are keen to share what we have learned so far.

The routes to scale framework

The routes to scale framework: a graphic representing the different strategic levers – including unlocking capital, building the evidence base, developing talent and more – and how they can be combined to create building blocks that achieve lasting impact.

A tool designed to help you understand, target and plan for change that sticks. The framework outlines our definition of success and the means to achieve it.

System change roadmap

A diagram showing the roadmap for system change. Seven boxes are arranged in a circle with arrows showing the direction around the map. The seven boxes are Recognise, Assemble, Imagine, Understand, Identify leverage, Build legitimacy, and Listen.

System change is hard. The distance between where you are and where you want to get to can be overwhelming, your theory of system change can be highly complex, and the pathway forward, unclear and ever-changing.

Our system change roadmap can help you break down ambitious goals into a manageable workplan, and offer some prompts for making meaningful progress at each step.

The cover of a report titled 'Navigating system change evaluation: A white paper', decorated with an image of a hand holding a compass.

Navigating system change evaluation

As we have got clearer on what it takes to make change at scale, it has also become more urgent to ask ourselves how we can know whether we are changing the system in the first place, and whether the changes are having the impact we desire.

This white paper offers some reflections and insights on what we’ve learnt about why system change evaluation is hard, and why it throws up welcome provocations that help us engage more directly with what should surely be the primary question of any evaluation: what is the true value of what we’re doing – and could we be doing it better?

Changing lives, changing systems

We also released five case studies under the title Changing lives, changing systems. These explore five initiatives we have worked on, setting out our lessons on what works – and what doesn’t – when pursuing impact at scale.

Ready to make an impact?

If you’re an organisation looking to make lasting change happen, or a foundation with a big ambition, we’d love to speak with you.

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