Creating a new generation of data to solve social problems.

Every year, donors fund hundreds of pilot projects in developing countries. While many of those projects produce results, most of them die a quiet death in one or two villages without ever expanding, replicating or exporting their positive impact. And the next year, funders and nonprofits set about re-inventing the wheel in villages in low-income countries yet again.

Why have we embraced this endless cycle of re-invention and duplication, resulting in millions of wasted dollars? As one development expert I recently interviewed put it: Funders will continue to support new pilot projects as long as they continue to believe there is a silver bullet out there.

Of course, there is no silver bullet to solving the world’s biggest problems. But there are plenty of solutions that are “good enough” and merit adequate funding to go to scale. These are programs and policies that, while not cure-alls, can improve people’s lives.

But now the six-million-dollar question is: How do we know which programs are ready for scale? That’s the question my firm, Mission Measurement, has been researching over the past year in pursuit of a practical answer—a set of simple metrics that can tell stakeholders whether a program is, or isn’t, ready for scaling.

In scouring the existing body of literature we found that no such rubric existed. The bulk of work in this space primarily consists of case studies explaining how specific projects successfully went to and (occasionally) failed to scale. Some researchers provide frameworks or methodologies for developing and executing a plan for scaling up.

These are all useful tools for managers, but what about external stakeholders? How do funders or partners or communities determine which projects should be scaled? How can we know if organizations are successfully implementing a scaling up plan? To test this idea my team has been interviewing practitioners, theorists, consultants, and academics in the field.

Among other factors that will be incorporated into an upcoming tool, there are three leading indicators that have come up again and again in our research: cost; incentive mapping; and monitoring and evaluation.

Developing a Realistic Cost Model: Extensive financial analyses and projections of unit costs are rarely conducted adequately. This is a crucial early step in determining whether a project is viably scalable. While pilot project funding might allow for a costly and complex project implementation, this type of investment will not be replicable on a larger scale. If unit costs exceed any reasonable government or consumer budget, or are not competitive with the next best alternative available, the project will likely stall no matter its demonstrated success. In order to mitigate this risk, a cost structure that is realistic with the financial resources of target beneficiaries or funders is necessary.

Incentive Mapping to Ensure Alignment: Analysing the incentives of all stakeholders – beneficiaries, funders, implementers – and ensuring that there is significant alignment among them, is a crucial indicator of scalability. Do the incentives exist for change to happen on a large scale? For a market-based solution, this means that the product design incentivises consumers to spend income on the product, rather than other goods, to improve their lives. In government-based systems, it means that the incentives exist for ecosystems to change well-entrenched bureaucratic practices. Leveraging existing systems to the greatest extent possible as well as well-aligned stakeholder incentives are good indications that a project will have better chances of overcoming the status quo and scaling.

Creating a Feedback Loop: Since this is Mission Measurement’s strong suit, we are happy to report that the ability to continually test, monitor, evaluate, and refine project attributes contributes to successful scaling up. In addition, promoting successful demonstration projects based on compelling evidence increases the potential to drive a project’s uptake. Products and service delivery need to be able to adapt to ever-changing conditions often in vastly varying regions and cultures.

We hope our tool will be an important addition to the scaling up field that will allow program managers to better focus their time and energy towards activities that contribute to scale. Similarly, it should allow external parties to better understand which pilots are on a pathway to scale. But, much like development projects, this will not be a silver bullet, but will offer a new and pragmatic perspective on an ongoing challenge in the development sphere.

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