Why ‘what’s your endgame?’ is a better question for aid agencies than ‘how do we go to scale?’

January 22, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Maybe it’s partly an age thing, but a lot of senior people in the aid business seem to obsess about scale. What’s the point of running a few projects, however

It can end in tears

Going to scale can end in tears

successful? No, the only worthwhile end is ‘going to scale’, affecting the lives of millions of people, not a few hundred. It’s understandable and laudably ambitious, but it can have some bad side effects:

  • It can lead to an outbreak of ‘best practicitis’, ‘rolling out’ cookie cutter programmes in dozens of countries, when all the Doing Development Differently work shows that approach doesn’t work – solutions have to be crafted by local actors, and will differ according to context.
  • It can lead to a ‘bigger is better’ rush to boost income, leading to jumping into bed with bad guys, or reversing decades of progress in reducing the use of emotive ‘poverty porn’ fund raising images.
  • It promotes a ‘we know best’ arrogance that ignores local solutions.

But a brilliant piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review calls for a rethink and proposes some really useful ways to go about it:

‘Most nonprofits never reach the organizational scale that they would need to catalyze change on their own. High structural barriers limit their access to the funding required to grow in a significant and sustainable way. Given those barriers, it’s time for nonprofit leaders to ask a more fundamental question than “How do you scale up?” Instead, we urge them to consider a different question: “What’s your endgame?”

An endgame is the specific role that a nonprofit intends to play in the overall solution to a social problem, once it has proven the effectiveness of its core model or intervention. We believe that there are six endgames for nonprofits to consider—and only one of them involves scaling up in order to sustain and expand an existing service. Nonprofits, we argue, should measure their success by how they are helping to meet the total addressable challenge in a particular issue area. In most cases, nonprofit leaders should see their organization as a time-bound effort to reach one of those six endgames.

So what is your endgame? Is it “continuous growth and ever greater scale”? In light of the enormous challenges that exist within the social sector, that is an easy and compelling answer for nonprofit leaders to give. But it may not be the right answer.’

And here’s their six endgames, and their implications for how we work – well worth reading and thinking about this. I’d love to hear your reactions.


January 22, 2015
Duncan Green