Ready to grow: Should you scale up your social enterprise?
8 June 2015 - Devi Clark

It’s taken a lot of work, focus and dedication, but you’ve done it. Your social enterprise is doing what you wanted it to – helping people, improving society or the environment. You have a team that knows what it’s doing. You have a product or service you are proud of. You are financially sustainable, or will be in the near future.

Complications still arise. You still want to improve what you do. You are still busy. But you are out of that start-up phase and into delivery mode.

So what now?

Do you concentrate on running the business as it is, making only small changes to improve how you run? Or do you want to grow further: to scale up and spread the impact of what you do?

Is scaling up for you?

As the social enterprise market matures, and more enterprises are reaching this point, scaling offers a great opportunity for the social sector not to constantly re-invent the wheel.

If you are already having an impact, surely a great way to have more of an impact is to spread an already proven model? After all, the motivation for most if not all social entrepreneurs is to change the world for the better.

However, scaling up is a challenge that can be as tough and risky as starting up in the first place. It often demands substantial changes to the structure of your organisation. Maintaining your social enterprise may be more appropriate.

Making the decision to scale is neither expected nor required. Growing your business can shift your role from delivery to senior management. If that doesn’t suit you because you’d rather be at the sharp end, meeting and working with your beneficiaries, then scaling may not be for you.

Some entrepreneurs decide to concentrate on ensuring that their existing enterprise is the best it can be. Improving quality, investing in staff, adjusting your internal systems are all worthwhile endeavours that can bring satisfaction and success within a business that continues to do good work.

Alternatively, you may wish to spread the impact of your enterprise and scale up its operations. What might make you decide to do this?

Reasons to scale

The motivation to scale may come from outside. Perhaps you’ve got an email from someone who loves your business model and wants to replicate it elsewhere. If their values match yours and you can see how what you do could translate to that market, you might want to support this development. And in time, they may adapt your model in ways that you could learn from.

Perhaps a funder or partner is keen for you to expand into new locations. If they can support you with good contacts and a strong understanding of the market, it can make the growth easier.

Sometimes the motivation comes from you, or one of your team members. Perhaps you have ideas to grow what you offer to your beneficiaries that will make a step change in the way you operate. For example, rather than doing everything manually (which builds strong relationships but is very time intensive), perhaps you want to automate or deliver at least some of your product digitally. This change may also make it easier to offer your service to more people.

Perhaps you can see ways that scaling up can make your enterprise more financially secure (though using scaling to rescue a business that is not fundamentally working usually means you are scaling up failure and is not recommended).

Or perhaps you simply want to help more people. This is the single biggest motivation for most social entrepreneurs. After all, it is probably the reason you set up in the first place.

Transformation, not evolution

Whatever your motivation, scaling is more than just organic growth in your business. It involves rapid growth that often demands fundamental changes to your organisation and how it operates.

Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, the creature your enterprise becomes can bear little resemblance to the original. The product or service may be essentially the same, but the delivery method and team will often need to be radically different.

As an entrepreneur, you may need to consider engaging with new partners, hiring new team members and changing the roles of the existing team who may need to specialise where before they thrived on variety.

Your enterprise may need new funding or investment while you grow into new geographical areas. You may be marketing to a whole new audience, which may require translation into new languages, or adjusting your model to different cultures. You may need to put in place new operating disciplines, written manuals and automated systems to manage the volume of transactions you are now dealing with.

So, the decision to scale should not be taken lightly, or before you and your stakeholders are ready to make the commitment to putting in the work and the managing the necessary changes.

Support for Scaling

The Impact Hub is running a new Scaling programme that is designed to support enterprises that are ready and committed to scaling. Impact Hubs from across Europe are working together to deliver the programme. Due to the popularity of the programme, applications are now closed in the UK, but for social enterprises based in Amsterdam, Athens, Bucharest, Madrid, Milan, Stockholm or Vienna applications are currently still open. To find our more, and to apply to the scaling programme, just go to