Scaling impact through partnerships: From simple models to rich strategies

Floortje Jacobs
By on May 11, 2016

Scaling up, scaling out, scaling deep, scaling wide, scaling across, vertical scaling, horizontal scaling… There has been a lot of ‘buzz’ around scaling impact in international development. The concept has been brought to the forefront in the last decade, since development effectiveness has become a key priority for donors, governments and development agencies. International organisations such as the UNDP, IFAD and the World Bank are among the proponents of an increased focus on processes of scaling and system change in order to improve development impact.

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But although there has been a lively discussion on scaling impact, not all conceptual thinking has been distilled for application of practitioners. In fact, many practical questions are still left unanswered; Binswanger-Mkhize et al. (2009) even argue that practitioners “often attempt to scale up without proper guidance, preparation and tools, leading to a frustrating experience”.

In inclusive business literature, we find a number of basic typologies (see table) that seem to imply that scaling can be understood through simple models and linear, plannable processes. The problem is that these typologies are derived from classic economic models of market growth; and therefore framed from the idea of scaling business models. But is that the right angle when focusing on scaling inclusive business? Shouldn’t our perspective be wider, putting actual impact at the centre of our thinking?

In the context of PPPLab, SNV is leading an applied research trajectory[1] on public-private partnerships (PPPs) and scaling. We have deliberately chosen to learn from theory but also very much from practice; how are PPPs developing strategies to reach more impact? How do they leverage budget? And what is additional value of partnerships in achieving scale?

Having looked at multiple PPP cases, it has become clear that scaling is NOT a linear process that can be planned step-by-step from the start. One key lesson is that it goes beyond simple ‘roll-out’ or ‘replication’ of a specific technical solution or business model; when one seeks to achieve significant levels of scaling impact through a certain solution, one needs to address higher ‘system’ dimensions such as the financing landscape, the policy and regulatory environment, public awareness and support structures of the solution. Capacities need to be built in those dimensions to create the conditions and support necessary to scale. This requires multiple interactions between actors at different system levels, and often several cycles of experimenting and adaption.

Take the example of an agribusiness that aims to sell improved inputs to smallholder farmers. As the company wants to improve its outreach, it looks beyond the input itself and takes the solution’s affordability into account:

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This example shows that in the pursuit of scaling impact, one shifts to other ‘system levels’ and has to deal with next levels of organization and complexity. It provides a good basic thinking logic: as one moves from a pilot to scale, one also moves from the specific service/product/technical solution, to the organization that helps to provide and manage these, and then on to the wider institutional and market dynamics, or “rules of the game” that shape the functioning of these organizations. Scaling, thus, involves multiple interactions between actors at different system levels and several cycles of adaption.

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A first finding of the research is that – in its effort to reach impact, a successful PPP initiative does not scale the technical solution per se, but rather focuses on a certain (set of) organizational arrangements that stimulate, enable and propel the adoption, use, management and sustainability of such a solution. In doing so, it has to deal with the solution’s financing environment, the regulatory environment, the market, etc. Only then can a PPP contribute to an ongoing increase in impact numbers (also beyond subsidized project periods).

Scaling is multi-faceted, and that is exactly why partnerships are essential in planning and scaling impact; dealing with multiple levels of the ‘system’ also requires multiple types of experience and expertise. In our case studies, we see companies partnering with knowledge institutes (technical expertise), NGOs (capacity building, demand creation, lobby), local governments (policy, regulations), sector organisations (wider collaboration and coordination) and banks and micro-finance institutions (financial products). These partnerships clearly choose for a ‘repertoire’ of activities, building comprehensive, rich strategies that propel the use of a specific solution.

These initial understandings lead to the question what this implies for development practitioners; how to develop successful scaling strategies? How to choose the right partners? How to maintain flexibility, taking the (often relatively short-term) requirements of donors and investors into account? And what is actually the role of the partnership itself? Clearly, there is still a lot to explore around the ‘scaling buzz’: given the lessons learned so far from our case studies, we can at least conclude that simple scaling models are NOT likely to succeed. Instead, we have to challenge ourselves and build rich, flexible strategies with the right partners to successfully reach scale in practice. Two elements we are now diving into are the experiences with timelines and stages of scaling; and the putting together of elements for the right scaling ‘package’. We expect to report further findings later this year; please follow our news, information and latest content at
This blog was co-authored by Floortje Jacobs and Jan Ubels from SNV
[1] PPPLab is a joint learning initiative (2014-2018) to study the relevance, effectiveness and quality of Dutch supported public-private partnerships (PPPs) and consists of a consortium of The Partnerships Resource Centre, Aqua4All, Centre for Development and Innovation at Wageningen UR and SNV. The scaling study focuses on the question if and how PPPs are instrumental for scaling impact. Besides a literature review, important data are collected from interaction with a number of active PPPs and a network of ‘thought leaders’ in the agriculture and water sector. For more information see
[2] Derived from Molenaar, J.W., Gorter, J., Heilbron, L., Simons, L., Vorley, B., Blackmore, E., Dallinger, J. 2015. Sustainable Sector Transformation: How to drive sustainability performance in smallholder-dominated agricultural sectors? White Paper 1. Commissioned by IFC.