Scaling in Practice

A few weeks ago I attended the annual Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit in Washington DC, hosted by Making Cents International. This event is always a great convening place for the who’s who in youth in development, including: funders, implementers, policy makers, youth leaders, companies, educators, and researchers. This year, the event brought together over 450 stakeholders from 50 countries to exchange knowledge, effect practice and improve the performance of youth economic opportunity programming worldwide.

Youth Econ Opps Conference - Nicki PostMEDA’s Senior Project Manager of Youth and Financial Services, Nicki Post, with Rani Deshpandi of Save the Children and Ata Cisse of UNCDF, – panelists at the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit, 2015

Discussions swirled around scale, policy and the impacts of urbanization on youth. However, it was the discussion around scale that got me thinking. As practitioners, we often refer to successful projects as being sustainable, scalable and measurable; yet Fiona MacCauley, the founder of Making Cents International, posed the following question:

As practitioners how can we AND more importantly should we “decentralize and replicate high quality youth economic opportunity programs in order to reach more youth with the products, services, and networks they need to get ahead?

This question of should really jumped out at me. We are trained to think that, “Yes all projects should be scalable,” but in practice, I don’t think they all are. First off, let’s make sure when we are talking about scale that we have some common terminology.

Scaling up means expanding, adapting and sustaining successful policies, programs and projects in different places and over time to reach a greater number of people (1).

With MEDA’s YouthInvest project we scaled up our non-financial services (NFS) through training Youth Serving orgainzations (YSOs) in a linked approach and to offer NFS to Microfinance Insitutions (MFIs) in a unified approach. With YouthInvest, we sought out and reached 50,000 youth, but I wonder if there wasn’t such a push for scale would there then be more of a push for quality with smaller reach. This is not to say that what services we did offer were not quality but to say that scale often obscures the importance of quality and emphasizes quantity.

We also hear of projects being pushed to scale and subsequnetly pushing partners to scale when, at times, partners are not ready and processes, procedures and systems are not in place. It is crucial to take a step back, look at criteria for projects to get to scale and then assess, is my project, partner, staff and more in place? Perhaps not...and that is ok. ‘Tis better to ensure you are offering quality services to those that are engaged rather then to push scale for a partner and/or system not yet ready.

The summit’s discussion on scale concluded with an important take away: reaching scale is not all about numbers, but it is about changing the entire programmatic ecosystem. (2) Not every initiative is scalable; and for those that aren’t able to scale, if they’re doing something very well with a small number of people, then we as practitioners should accept that.


(1)  Marketa Jonasova and Sanjiva Cooke. (2012). “Thinking Systematically about Scaling Up: Developing Guidance for Scaling Up World Bank-supported Agriculture and Rural Development Operations.” The World Bank’s Agriculture and Rural Development Discussion Paper 53.

(2) The issue of scale in programming, how to define it and what is necessary to achieve is an ongoing and important discussion. MEDA facilitated the SEEP Network’s Practitioner Learning Program from 2009 to 2012, focusing on how to achieve scale with youth financial services. For more information, please see our learning documents: Reaching Scale with Financial Education, Building Sustainable Business Models, Effective Marketing for Scaling Up, and Institutionalizing YFS to Achieve Scale.

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