Nothing draws an audience faster than a good story. The best stories transport the listener to a new perspective, down a journey of twists and turns, moments of despair, and of course, triumph.
What better way to start to untangle the complexities of scaling social impact in the context of South Asia than to focus on the stories of organisations that have made it there? Theories are great, but without deep grounding in experiences and practice, they often have little application.
Over the past two years, the BRAC Social Innovation Lab has led the Doing while Learning network, bringing together a select group of organisations from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to learn from each other and share their stories as they scale up diverse initiatives. Earlier this month, we presented our findings at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Conference Centre to a group of leading experts on scale and social innovations.
Participants share their stories to a group of leading experts on scale and social innovations.
To set the stage one of our academic partners, Professor Jaideep Prabhu from Cambridge University, facilitated a case discussion on Nidan’s work with informal workers in India. After two decades of tireless work by Nidan and its partners, including street vendor associations with hundreds of thousands of members, earlier this year India passed the landmark Street Vendors Protection Act, formally recognising their legitimacy to public spaces and protections.
It didn’t come easy. Nidan’s founder, Arbind Singh, told incredible stories of surrounding the houses of powerful government officials to demand attention, taking death threats when Nidan’s work prevented contractors from profiting off the vendors, and spreading passion to top lawyers to help with the formal advocacy efforts, while creating deep friendships with journalists to build popular support. Arbind certainly got his hands dirty. “I swore I would never go to jantar mantar (designated space for demonstrations in New Delhi) again, after we passed the legislation. I practically lived there for a while!”
We learned about extremely diverse routes to scale. While BRAC has largely scaled up by building its own service delivery and community presence, Pakistan’s Rural Support Programmes, a network of state-level organisations, opted to create an independent umbrella organisation, the Rural Support Programme Network (RSPN), to provide the higher-level advocacy and resource mobilisation. Representing the largest group of non-governmental organisations in the country, RSPN has become a powerful voice in policy discussions, while enabling the local implementers to stay focused on serving the unique needs of their local communities.
Members from the Doing while Learning network gather at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Conference Centre.
We also saw that scale is messy. It’s nice to dream about having time dedicated to learning and understanding, then piloting, and finally, once all questions are answers, scaling up, but it doesn’t really play out that way in practice. Leaders face constant battles in balancing the time required to understand a problem with the urgencies of the situation. Tough compromises must be made—often between important goals like sustainability, quality, and speed—and the ability to do this effectively is a key ingredient of success.
The message: achieving social impact scale is possible, and it’s happening all over South Asia. There is no right pathway to get there, but certain modes of thinking that facilitate the process. Leaders at institutions like Nidan, Gram Vikas, BRAC, the Access to Information Initiative, and the Rural Support Programme Network have incredible wisdom to share—for those who are listening.
Want to learn more? Read case studies and other publications on the Doing while Learning project.
Maria A May is the senior programme manager for BRAC’s social innovation lab and microfinance.