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Often times in social enterprise, we talk about the scalability of ventures in terms of assessing their sustainability as viable business models. However, what does the scalability refer to? Is it geographic, economic or social? What is a standardized definition of what we should look for when we consider scale? In a recently article published by Forbes, the writer encouraged a view of scale that they argue as more equitable, reasonable and grassroots via the following lenses:

Models – Simply put, what works? In my view, social entrepreneurship is a vast laboratory that plugs into the marketplace for funders. It’s a very tough marketplace, in some ways tougher than for-profit startups. What matters is the service model – what you’re trying to change. And that model itself has some scale to it. Work with too small a population and your success (or failure) may mean little. Go too big and your chances of success grow smaller, especially since there’s no time or space or patience with noodling on the model. The fine-tuning process is so vital. The most successful digital social ventures – think DonorsChoose, GlobalGiving, Kiva – all took a long time to find their grooves. There are plenty of noisy launches that go nowhere.

Depth of engagement – Another way to look at scale is to examine the scale of the service you provide at the level of one person or one group of people. How deep do you go? How well do you understand the actual societal problem you’re trying to solve? If, for example, you’re working on hunger and children living in poverty, is your focus on solely your whiz-bang idea for new, super-nutritional juice boxes and a spiffy distribution system that’s all mobile and gamified – or do you truly know why young people still go hungry in this world … and are you serious about considering those underlying causes in trying to change outcomes? That’s another kind of “scale” – scale in thinking, and research, and involvement. And that scale matters.

Measurable results – What do you measure? Does it go beyond the obvious surface measurements – units delivered, clicks, number of times you’re mentioned on lists of Super Cool Social Entrepreneurs? I think the idea of scale matters deeply here, because it’s very, very hard. The easy measurements are easy – the much tougher job comes in attaching those embryonic numbers to the bigger societal picture. If you’re starting a venture to help returning veterans, for example, you’ll know how many former soldiers you’re assisting, how many people are in your nascent system. But will you know how they connect elsewhere, who else is helping them, where the other holes are in their lives? And are you in it for the long haul? The best measurement in social ventures that I’ve seen is brutally candid – it tracks what’s known first-hand, what the outside variables are, and what is not known. That’s another kind of scale.

Collective goals – Sure, collective impact is all the rage in social entrepreneurship – and indeed, it may be the only viable path to what is generally understood as scale outside of a few major ventures with giant budgets. But I want to make a subtle distinction between impact and goals here. Coalitions are all well and good, and most meetings are held in good faith. But is the impact always there? And does that impact scale? Before you throw your coffee cup through the screen, consider this: impact has a lot more wiggle room than goals, and so does scale. Both are perfect consultant words (and I should know!) because they allow for so much flexibility in business planning. So in talks of mergers and coalitions (and I’ve been in a few), I try to focus on actual, real-world goals in the context of collective action. Achieving those goals – or failing – will yield a much clearer picture of scale.

Horizon – We’re all going to live forever. Every startup goes public. Every social venture becomes a household name and saves millions. But let’s face it – reality has a window that opens and closes. By all means, leap through that window – but understand that we’re all just putting together rock bands here. Every band breaks up, eventually. Yours will too. That’s why scale also refers to the horizon of the enterprise.”

By viewing scale in terms of models, depth of engagement, measurable results, collective goals and the horizon, the idea of scalability is more practical to start up social enterprises.More importantly, as the author argues, this view encourages“social entrepreneurs to focus on solving a problem, and not building an organization that outlives them. And really, isn’t that the goal?”

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