Scaling social enterprise in the UK

22.10.2012 Blog

Although there is growing interest in the potential for social entrepreneurs to tackle social problems, a persistent issue is their ability to scale up their operations. The Big Venture Challenge –  funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s People Powered Change programme – is a project from UK organisation UnLtd that aims to support social enterprises looking to grow, while also developing understanding of what contributes to successful scaling.

The project began last year with a competition to find 25 entrepreneurs with great potential to scale up. Winners were offered matched core funding of between £25,000 and £100,000 as well as access to an intensive incubation and investment readiness programme which includes a dedicated Development Manager from UnLtd and access to a series of bootcamps, network events and experts.

Reflecting on the process of choosing the winners for this initiative, UnLtd has developed some tentative conclusions about the factors that are most important for social enterprises to be able to scale. In a recent report, Planning for Scale, they suggest that these are:

  • Proposition – an investable business model that can deliver impact at scale. This includes having a distinctive value proposition that can be easily communicated.
  • People – a compelling entrepreneur who has the right attitude, is networked in their field of operation and with strong teams and partnerships in place.
  • Performance – a compelling track record of social and financial performance in this or previous ventures and a commitment to reporting against targets.
  • Plan – a viable growth plan that includes appropriately sized and timed investment ask.

Over the course of the three year programme, UnLtd will also be tracking how successful their winners are at scaling their enterprises and use this empirical data to try to better isolate the factors that are most critical to growth. UnLtd will use a  quasi-experimental evaluation design to compare the 25 Award Winners with similar social entrepreneurs who are not programme participants. The comparison group will be sampled from social entrepreneurs who applied to Big Venture Challenge but were unsuccessful. The evaluation will track the progress of the Award Winners and non-participants over time, so that their relative progress in scaling up can be compared.

This work represents a really interesting attempt to go beyond the usual case studies and anecdotal evidence to build up a more robust body of evidence about the critical factors needed to scale. We’ll be following the study with interest and look forward to reporting back on its first findings.