Go deep or go wide?

“Scale up” has been on the minds of those around me lately and after a conversation this week with a philanthropic advisor who had questions about using cost- and cost-benefit analysis, I crafted the following text to help frame the issues at hand:

If one project reaches 100 girls at a cost of $1.00 per girl, while a second project reaches 1,000 girls at the cost of $1.10 per child, funders, policymakers, or program managers might be tempted to declare the first project more “efficient.” However, such a decision would prioritize “efficiency” over coverage, and 900 less girls would be reached. Investors must decide then if the opportunity costs of reaching more girls are greater than $.10 per girl.

On the other hand, investors must also consider whether to prioritize coverage over quality. Perhaps the project serving 100 girls is very intensive and long-term, for example reaching and rehabilitating girls that have been part of the sex trade, while the project serving 1,000 girls provides a single workshop on reproductive and sexual health. Fundamentally changing the lives of a few girls might have a more significant long-term impact than helping many more girls with a more “shallow” or one-off activity.

Thoughts? Feedback on my explanation?

The site, The Big Push Forward, recommended Chris Roche of Oxfam Australia by also has some interesting resources on examining value for money. Are there others you’d recommend?

And vice versa?

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  1. Jennifer – You raise some very good points around the concept of ‘scaling for impact’ not just scaling ‘by the numbers’. There is increasing talk about how we can create and ‘measure’ impact, but I have not yet seen much written on scaling impact. As you note, a lot will depend on better clarifying what a particular scale-up effort is designed to accomplish. I hope the conversation around this issue will become increasingly robust.

  2. In scaling social issues it is clue to be conscious about the people (beneficiaries) to whom we are working for. Jennifer you expressed it clearly “changing the lives of a few girls might have a more significant long-term impact than helping many more girls with a more “shallow” or one-off activity.”

    Measures about this sort of impact should focus on a wide range of indicators (progress in education, family life of those girls, engagement to their communities) We need good talks about social measurement! Thanks

  3. The examples you give show the need to do more than a “bottom line” analysis of programs. Both quantitative and qualitative impacts are important (wow, am I full of jargon!)to measure.

    As someone working in communications for an international development agency, I often find myself trying to figure out what is important to highlight in stories. Disaster relief is easy to talk about- immediate needs met, livelihoods and infrastructure rebuilt, etc. But when it comes to human rights work, it’s a lot harder to “sell” to our donors, given the 2-3 minute attention span I have to write for. They’re much more interested in the bottom line than in the more intangible but more important analyses…

  4. Russell Kerkhoven

    A decade ago the WB commissioned work around the issue of going to scale by civil society organisations and HIV/AIDS work. From that i learnt to appreciate the differentiation between scaling up (as reaching out to higher policy and decision making levels/steps in a sector and scaling out by reaching out to more people or mobilising the involvement of co-agencies to increase coverage and involvement as an important strategic choice you have to make. A further choice and understanding that seems relevant is understanding if you need to slow down or speed up. Too often i have seen promising initiatives being forced to go for scale while we have not yet understood what are the benefits, costs, implications? For instance many NGOs and their backdonors tend to ignore or downplay the indirect support costs involved in reaching out to a 1000 girls. Before taking the decision to scale out, ask for an independent review that looks and indirect and hidden costs and make sure they are factored in

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