Could charities be doing more to spread good ideas?

01 Mar 2018 In-depth

Charities shouldn’t pursue growth for its own sake, but often great ideas could be shared more widely, says David Ainsworth.

Late last year I wrote a post for questioning whether the charity sector was doing enough to grow its best ideas. I feel that in general, charities’ most effective initiatives only reach a fraction of those who could benefit.

The piece was prompted by my experience of the Charity Awards, our annual contest to identify the best projects and initiatives in the sector, and a feeling that each year we are told of many good concepts which ought really to be universally adopted.

This is not to say that the charities themselves should get bigger. My original piece attracted a backlash from a lot of people working in small charities who suggested that often, scaling up a charity actually removes what made it good. Often what makes a charitable intervention great, they said, is not the idea but the people delivering it, and their local networks and ability to apply it to the individuals in their area.

It is also not to say that most charities should be targeting growth. Many charities already deliver interventions that are widely available elsewhere – hospices, for example, or the Scouts. Many others are struggling to survive, let alone think about expansion. And 80 per cent of all organisations in the sector are part of the community infrastructure, which is not really something you can build. It is something which grows, over time.

What I am saying is that from time to time, we will encounter a project or initiative which is ripe for growth, and the sector is not always good at ensuring that this growth happens.

The food bank is one example of an idea which grew rapidly when it was needed. The Trussell Trust, responding to need, grew its network into every corner of the land. If not for the Trust, would another food bank charity have stepped up in the face of this need? We can only hope so.

I have recently seen lots of ideas that could usefully be exported across the UK and beyond. Volunteer dentistry. Beach cleans. Meeting prisoners at the gates. Domestic violence recognition units in hospitals. Supplying water pumps without subsidy. Community newspapers. These ideas, and scores more like them, have been taken up in patches, but are only available to a handful of the people who might usefully benefit.

Failure to grow is very common. The American writer Steve Goldberg identifies that some of the very best interventions in the US are reaching only 5 per cent of potential beneficiaries, many years after their effectiveness was proven.

How to scale up

If we say that we need to scale up ideas, rather than charities, what does that mean? Chris Wright, chief executive of Catch 22, wrote eloquently in response to my original piece about how his charity had used a tool developed by Alice Gugelev and Andrew Stern of the Global Development Incubator. This tool encourages charities to think not about how they would scale up, but what their “endgame” is, or in other words, what role the charity will play in the overall solution to a social problem.

The tool identifies six possible endgames, all of which ensure that a charity’s intervention reaches all who can benefit from it, but don’t necessarily involve the charity delivering it alone (see box opposite). The challenge to every sector leader is to first identify whether they have an intervention which could potentially grow, and then if they do, to decide which endgame will be most effective at growing it.

Only in relatively few cases – delivering big government contracts, for example – is scale an advantage, in and of itself. In many cases, the best answer is that government delivers the solution. Some charities, such as the National Trust or RNLI, deliver services permanently at scale, but they are the exception, rather than the norm.

Why don't good ideas grow?

The charity sector is full of people reinventing the wheel.

Some of this is necessary. The sector is full of passionate people delivering things for other people, free of charge. Individuals are inspired, and communities have come together. These initiatives would not have happened if those people had been forced into the corporate confines of a national structure. There are some with tidy minds – mostly not working in the sector – who would like only one charity for heart disease, one for cancer, and so on. But the “one big solution” approach was trialled extensively in the Soviet Union, and it isn’t a goer.

Having said all that, there are still too many people labouring away, on their own, at a small scale, without access to networks and resources, and without knowing the best practice. This is essentially a structural problem of the charity sector, and one we need to accept and try to consciously ameliorate. Public and private sector models naturally encourage the growth of good ideas to scale. Voluntary sector models do not.

This is okay. There are plenty of good things about our sector’s model. It is the best model for tackling lots of problems. But we need to recognise that nothing is without its flaws. This is a flaw in our sector, and it must consciously be corrected.

First, we need to consciously encourage a culture in which it is seen as good to grow. This is not to say we should do down people who choose not to grow. There is plenty of navel-gazing and self-criticism in our sector already. But we must praise people who find a good idea, and take it to scale. We must actively encourage people who have great interventions to spread them more widely. We must be cheerleaders for the idea that our beneficiaries deserve the best interventions. We must share learning. If we encounter a good idea, and we see it is not spreading as we like, we must proselytise for it.

Second, we must spend a lot more time identifying effective interventions, and testing what is the most effective. This is not to say we need more impact measurement reports. Most of these are effectively sales brochures. What we need is decent research to show what a good intervention looks like, with a minimum of jargon.

Role of funders

The group who can make the most difference are funders. We must encourage funders to develop an evidence base for what is effective, to repeat-fund interventions that are proven to be effective, to give more unrestricted funding over longer periods, and to have metrics to identify whether their grants do what they want.

I suspect that the power imbalance between funders and charities will make this hard to deliver. It is hard to give honest feedback to funders for fear of losing their funding, and many are not in listening mode anyway. A few practical nudges may be in order. I would like to see a ranking system to identify funders who are and are not following best practice, to help those who are struggling to see more clearly where they could potentially improve.

I am asking for culture change, basically, which is a tough thing to drive. But at root, it is culture, not structure, which will make the difference here. There must be an expectation that good ideas should grow; that they should be evidenced and funded and supported. Because with the scale of need so great, it is imperative we deliver the best solutions.

‘Endgames’: The six growth models for charities to adopt

Open source

A charity that invests in research and development to develop and refine a new idea or intervention. It then works to spread this idea or intervention by serving as a resource hub for others to draw from – a good example here is Alcoholics Anonymous.


A charity that seeks to expand usage of its product or model without expanding its organisation, by persuading others to replicate and deliver it.

Government adoption

A charity that proves its concept and demonstrates that its intervention can be delivered at a significant scale, ultimately persuading government to take on its model.

Commercial adoption

A charity that alleviates either a market failure or a market inefficiency. By demonstrating the impact and the profitability of a product or service, and reducing associated risks, they create the conditions for commercial organisations to move in. A good example of this is microfinance in emerging economies.

Mission achievement

A charity with a well-defined and plausibly achievable goal; eg campaigns focused on the eradication of diseases by a specific time.

Sustained service

The decision to sustain a service indefinitely. This model makes sense only when a charity can satisfy an enduring social need that the commercial and public sectors cannot or will not satisfy.

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