Nowhere to Grow

The systematic scale-up of social entrepreneurs’ solutions by Big International NGOs (BINGOs) is simply not a thing. Why not?


This article was originally published by Stanford Social Innovation Review on October 22, 2020 with the headline - Nowhere to Grow.

Innovate, prove, and scale: These are the basic marching orders for any social entrepreneur. You’re supposed to “go big or go home,” but the truth is that no matter how good you are, your solution likely won’t achieve its potential unless others—preferably bigger others—begin to replicate and scale it as well.

We’ve long taught that those others include governments, markets, and other NGOs. But we’ve become dubious about that last one. Despite long-term engagements with the 50+ organizations in the Mulago portfolio, we can’t come up with a single compelling example of scale-up via other, larger NGOs.

That’s alarming, so we did a little survey. We asked CEOs of Big International NGOs (BINGOs), BINGO board members, and a few select people with a long, broad view of the social sector if they could name one solution from the social entrepreneur world that had been effectively scaled via the BINGOs.

With no hesitation, but more than a little agonizing, the across-the-board answer was no.

What? Really? There must be some examples somewhere, and a proper academic study might find them. But given our own experience, and that of the illustrious bunch we surveyed, it seems clear that the systematic scale-up of social entrepreneurs’ solutions by BINGOs is simply not a thing.

If replication by NGOs isn’t a promising route to scale, well, that’s scandalous. Mulago, Skoll, DRK, Echoing Green: We’ve all backed leaders and organizations on the basis of solutions which must—implicitly or explicitly—scale via the NGO sector. But if that isn’t happening, if BINGO scale-up isn’t a thing, then they’re on a road to nowhere. We’ve let them down. In good faith, they threw everything they had at building solutions that could scale, but the BINGOs, with their massive collective ability to replicate, aren’t going to tap their collective potential for massive impact.

So why the hell not?

Follow the Money

BINGOs have big payrolls, so they rely on Big Aid (the bi- and multilateral funding agencies, like USAID and the World Bank) for much of their funding. But Big Aid funding is restricted, and Big Aid likes projects: time-bound, site-specific one-offs driven by the funder’s ideas and priorities. So the BINGOs do projects, and rather than a determined scale-up of elegant, proven solutions, we get a sprawl of unconnected projects that are often a kitchen-sink mash-up of barely related ideas. We recently read a study of one project that crammed nutrition, WASH, and savings interventions into an unscalable stew (that also failed to have any impact on health or malnutrition, but that’s another story…). That’s more typical than exceptional.

The project mindset is itself deadening. A bunch of time-limited projects all over the place is not going to solve problems: Problem-solving requires a solutions approach, wherein proven models are scaled up with commitment and determination. But the consensus among our respondents—which matches our own impression—is that it won’t happen in the current dysfunctional ecosystem. Big Aid likes projects and so the BINGOs get sucked into a sclerotic industry where everyone scrambles for contracts that allow them to implement Big Aid’s ideas.

The paradox at the center of it all is that there are no enthusiasts for this status quo. It’s kind of like what we’re learning about urban streets in the pandemic: Nobody liked noisy, car-clogged streets, but we couldn’t see a way to turn them into welcoming avenues that work for the people who live on and use them until the pandemic shut the whole machine down for a while. Maybe the BINGO/Big Aid ecosystem needs its own moment of inescapable truth. Call us if you have any idea how to make that happen.

'Not Invented Here'

Everyone’s heard this refrain before, but we actually had a conversation where someone at a BINGO we love cracked up at our questions, saying “We don’t scale up other peoples’ solutions,” as if the whole notion was ludicrous. It was depressing and refreshing at the same time.

Discussions even went the opposite way, with BINGO staff telling us how they created great solutions and spun them off into independent organizations. What? Where are those spin-offs supposed to go? If you’ve got a great idea, don’t spin it off. Scale it up!

We do understand how the competitive contract culture forces BINGOs to search for ways to look unique and innovative, and we know that institutional pride can cloud your vision. We have a solution to help you have your cake and eat it too: Pretend you invented it! We don’t care, we just want to see impact at scale.

Mismatch Between Headquarters and Field

We’ve seen the top brass get excited about a solution but fail to translate their enthusiasm to effective work on the ground. Conversely, we’ve watched as knowledgeable field staff were unable to infect headquarters with their enthusiasm about something they’d seen working in front of them. We can’t pretend to know why this happens, but there are a lot of layers between the headquarters and the places where the rubber meets the road at big organizations. But it may simply be about how the BINGOs allocate resources: In one case, a relatively small NGO ended up paying for a BINGO to complete a pilot replication of their proven model because the BINGO didn’t budget well and ran out of money mid-way through. That’s ridiculous.

Quality Control (or Lack Thereof)

Honestly, a big part of the problem seems to be that the replicating NGOs (big or small) don’t get the same results as the original doer and the effort to scale up fizzles out. This is often a both-sides problem: Either the original organization’s evidence is simply not externally valid, or—more frequently—they don’t have a good way to translate their model to others. On the other hand, replicating NGOs often cut corners, try to do it on the cheap, with less staff, with a shorter time frame. Or they aren’t set up to nimbly iterate in the way that new efforts require. Either way, the work suffers and momentum grinds to a halt.

Blind to a Big Free Lab

Project-based funding, ownership issues, sludgy bureaucracies, poor quality control—our entrepreneurs are throwing in the towel. They’re exploring more satisfying, but likely less scalable replication via small, locally based NGOs. Some had envisioned BINGO replication as a stepping-stone to government scale-up and have re-routed to go straight to government themselves (that’s probably a good thing). At some point, you just have to admit that you just can’t get there from here.

It’s way better to re-route your journey to scale than to continue banging your head against a door that is locked tight, but it represents a huge opportunity lost, a critical resource spurned. Yes, BINGOs do some great stuff, and the ideas that are applied in successful projects (they’re mostly just projects, though) have to come from somewhere. But that somewhere isn’t the social entrepreneurship world, and that’s a real shame: They’re ignoring a beautiful, sprawling solutions lab, a lab made that much more powerful by its widening embrace of the parallel movement to measure impact.

But, hey, BINGOs, it’s not too late: The wonderful thing is that you could have those solutions—produced with lots of blood, sweat, tears, and dough—for free! Just take them, implement them, and scale them. Hell, take credit for them, we don’t care. The social entrepreneurship lab isn’t the only source of great ideas, but it’s a pretty awesome source. If the proven ideas it’s produced go to scale, it’s going to make a big dent in a lot of big problems.

So. Steal these ideas. Please. Take them and run with them. We promise there will be more.