Perspective, Charities

Scaling up good ideas is difficult – and we’re starting to figure out why

A couple of weeks ago, we ran a story about a nonprofit that, in its early stages, worked incredibly well to help the poor … until it didn’t. And the charity admitted it.

By Kelsey Piper, Vox

It stopped working when Evidence Action moved up to larger-scale trials of No Lean Season, their program to end seasonal poverty. So they began using the research to improve the program.

Though the results were disappointing, it isn’t actually rare for a charity to fail in scaling up. Programs often show exceptional results in a small trial, but disappoint when when they expand. Why does something like that happen? How can the gains from a program be so substantial when it’s first attempted and disappear entirely as soon as it’s expanded to cover more people?

I asked these questions of Mushfiq Mobarak, an economics professor who led the research into No Lean Season. He works at Yale’s Research Initiative on Innovation and Scale, which studies the science of scaling and the research methods needed to successfully study program effects. He thinks the development community isn’t worried enough about whether the results from its programs will scale. “We’re applying really high rigorous standards to the initial program implementation,” he said, “but not applying those same standards to the program at scale.”

It turns out that getting sustained results beyond smaller pilot programs is well known to be exceptionally difficult. There are some specific reasons programs fail to scale.

Read the full story at Vox.
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