Not a magic pill, but a process

Making a social innovation work is not simple. But when it does, it might be tempting to believe you can just duplicate the process again and again and it will keep working. But it’s not that simple. Let’s look at the reality of scaling, and some crucial questions you need to ask before trying. 



Social innovation (SI) is taking up a lot more space than it used to. Governments are designing SI strategies. Businesses are turning their skills towards social problems. Non-profits are honing and growing exciting projects. Universities are studying and teaching SI methods and trends.

Around the world, SI is a familiar part of everyday life. Locally we see clinics working with primary healthcare organisations to provide home-based care and community leaders meeting with police to discuss safety in Community Policing Forums (CPFs). Schools, clinics and organisations are establishing food gardens to teach skills, provide livelihoods and build community pride. The sheer ubiquity of SI can give the impression that these innovations are simple to implement and reimplement. Again and again.

But this is not the case. Every successful innovation started as an idea that was piloted and refined before being scaled (expanded beyond the initial prototype to increase social impact). And this is the complicated part. We need to understand scaling better in order to do it better.

FACT: Social innovation is not a magic pill.

It’s more like a multi-layered process, probably involving much thinking, testing, working overtime and muddling through politics, inefficiencies and other complexities along the way.

The truth is, with insufficient planning or within an ineffective organisation, even a great innovation can fail to scale. Information on this subject is still sparse – more attention is often given to social innovators, the innovations themselves and how they were conceived. So, although optimism should be encouraged, it needs to be tempered with an awareness of the challenges scaling can involve. This starts with a reality check (see table below).

PERCEPTION: “Magic pill” REALITY: Process
1. Social innovators can easily identify a solution to a social problem, through some clear thinking, discussion, debate and desktop research. 1. Social innovators spend years studying a problem and the factors perpetuating it.
2. This magic-pill solution can then quickly be piloted and proven to effective. 2. They work with experienced practitioners in the field and from different disciplines.
3. The media will recognise its value and start promoting it. 3. A social innovation is collaboratively designed, then piloted and revised in an iterative process.
4. Investors and donors will hear about it and quickly decide to support it because it works. 4. After much effort and time, a funder is found who will back the innovation, but usually on a much smaller scale than anticipated.
5. The social innovation can be cut-and-pasted elsewhere with success and little resistance. 5. Despite early successes, scaling is more difficult than planned.
6. It works successfully and solves problems everywhere else too. 6. Implementing organisations might have internal issues – such as a change of leadership – that undermines performance. Various stakeholders, including beneficiaries, might also sabotage the innovation.
7. Any implementing organisation involved runs effectively, no political resistance is encountered, no cultural or regional differences hinder the pill’s effect. 7. Eventually, some traction and social value is achieved, but only after many compromises.
8. It must be magic! 8. It’s a lot of hard work!

FACT: Scaling is not simple.

Although scaling social impact is almost always the ultimate aim, unfortunately far more innovators tend to fail than succeed. That’s why those studying SI should pay as much attention to innovations that have failed as they do to those that have scaled with success.Clearly, something in the process needs to be assessed and addressed.

There are many approaches to scaling that make use of various partners and tools. Let’s look at four popular methods, and South African examples showing each one at work…


Trade-Mark is a small and growing Cape Town enterprise that uses technology to help create employment for township artisans. First, they recruit and screen township tilers, painters, carpenters, pavers and so on – experienced trandesmen, not unskilled labourers. Trade-Mark then uses its website and social media channels to market their services to potential clients, such as small businesses and suburban households. Clients can book or arrange quotes online. Soon they will also be able to view tradesmen’s profiles and ratings. On completion, the client pays the artisan directly and can rate the service online – a good incentive to deliver professional quality. The Industrial Development Corporation recently invested R2.5 million in Trade-Mark for scaling its operations.

The lesson: Founder Joshua Cox says the challenge in using technology to scale an innovation is balancing the technical side with a much-needed “human touch”.


The Isibindi Model was designed and piloted by the National Association of Child Care Workers (NACCW) in the early 2000s. It was created to complement the struggling foster-care system, which was faced with growing numbers of AIDS orphans. It’s a social franchise that uses trained community workers to support orphan-headed households and keep families together in their communities and homes. It relies on structured partnerships between provincial government, an implementing non-profit organisation, a funder and the NACCW. The rollout has now been integrated into government policy. Called the Minister’s Plan, it is part of the Department of Social Development’s strategy.

The lesson: Effective partnership and policy integration is making Isibindi one of the largest public works programmes in South Africa. Currently, 10 000 workers are being trained and deployed to 260 sites.


Reel Gardening is a social franchise with a product concept that has won a number of social innovation awards. When founder Claire Reid was still at school, she designed a method of preparing and packaging seeds for fruit and vegetable gardens that significantly increases their chance of survival and growth. It also saves 80% of the water typically required for germination. Reel Gardening is steadily building production and distribution capabilities, and partnering with national retailers to take it even further.

The lesson: The more the product is used and sold, the greater its impact. But in addition, Reel Gardening has established a non-profit entity to work with community food gardens throughout South Africa.


Shine was established in 2000 to improve reading skills among South African Grade 2s and 3s – a pressing need, given that less than one-third of Grade 3s score more than 50% on standardised literacy tests. The award-winning teaching method has significantly improved learner literacy. In 2009, Shine was approached by organisations who wanted to use its method, manuals and assessment tools. After much consideration, a decision was made to create “Shine in a Box” and franchise the teaching model. As part of the franchise agreement, Shine closely monitors the franchisees’ implementation.

The lesson: Franchising helped Shine to overcome a number of resource constraints. The model has now been franchised to four organisations, or Shine Chapters.


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