Digital Scaling

The many online tools that organisations can use to grow their impact.

One of the most important questions that organisations in the social sector need to ask themselves is: how can I spread my innovations and ideas so that they benefit the greatest possible number of people, and my effect is as big as it can be? Because most of the most pressing problems– inadequate education, sanitation and healthcare – are global. Due to a lack of experience in scaling, locally developed social innovations aren’t widely spread and adopted. Instead, what we often see is solutions which already exist being re-invented. The market fragments and many problems remain unsolved. Not only that, but there are many claims on already scarce resources.

Hence in recent years in NGO and social enterprise circles, the word “scaling” is cropping up more and more often. By scaling we don’t just mean growth and the extension of products and services to the greatest possible number of people. Ideally it stands for a fundamental systemic change. There are four strategies for spreading social innovation through digital media:


More and more social enterprises and NGOs are using crowdfunding and donation platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo or startnext, to finance not just prototypes but also general investment and growth. This is examined in more depth in the trendOnline Fundraising.


Using petition platforms like MoveOn, Avaaz, or Campact, NGOs are mobilising interest groups to campaign on new policies, laws and standards.Mom’s Rising for example represents mothers. To do this the US-American NGO not only sets up petitions but makes the appropriate tools publically available, so that anybody can start their own petition. The hope is that petitions lead to the spreading of new norms and ways of behaving.


There are numerous platforms which match social organisations and volunteers, for example Sparked or Volunteer Match in the USA or Gute Tat in Germany (see trend Karma not Cash). Organisations which are largely supported by volunteers also use social media to manage their networks. Viva con Agua, a Hamburg-based organisation which raises money and runs water-themed projects, organises more than 2,000 volunteers via its platform ‘Pool’. The management team estimates that this reduces the communication costs by 40 percent. In the USA the Surfrider Foundation is a good example of how campaigning tools and interactive maps which people can contribute to help to coordinate 50,000 members.

Project design

Digital media are especially interesting for social organisations, who want to spread their model and their impact. The different models are:

Strategic online cooperation with partners with long reach

Some small NGOs and social enterprises cooperate with partners who have online access to a large target group. One example is Refugees United, a young, innovative organisation which has extended the reach of its online services through partnerships with large, established organisations such as the Red Cross and UNHCR.

Digital media as the backbone of a network organisation

Since 2007 iMentor has been running its own digital scaling programme, iMentor interactive (iMi). It provides interested schools and organisations all the tools necessary to implement their own mentoring programme. This includes a programme plan, advisory services, and as a cornerstone, an online platform. Mentors and schoolchildren can register on the platform with a comprehensive profile and are matched on the basis of their preferences and abilities.


Some organisations use exclusively digital tools to spread their model. Take theAwesome Foundation for instance: anyone who wants to set up a chapter in their own town, can apply to do so online and use the platform to organise its members. Another example of a very open and scalable project design is Carrotmob. The network puts tutorials and guidance online and anybody can put their own ideas forward for a flashmob.

Branded vs. White Label

Digital tools are also interesting for organisations which offer their concept as a self-contained product. The Encore Fellowship Network (EFN) is a good example: managers receive a stipend to take up a meaningful career in the social sector. NGOs then get these highly competent people working for them, who would otherwise be unaffordable. Within 18 months, EFN has grown from a pilot programme of ten fellows in nine NGOs to a network of over 120 NGOs in twelve American cities. Whilst EFN closely vets its project partners and insists that its “Encore” brand remains prominent, other organisations offer their knowledge and software to interested parties without strings attached in terms of brand. The team at iMentor interactive for instance has developed software on the basis of their own work with schoolchildren and mentors in New York, and other social organisations can use this to set up their own mentoring programmes elsewhere.

What does digital scaling cost?

Even when you’ve got a ‘proof of concept’, most donors in the social sector are reluctant to make the necessary investments in ICT-infrastructure. The cost of digital scaling varies enormously. The tools provided by the Encore Fellowship Network for example are very cheap. Two full-time employees run the entire network using mostly standard software. Other programmes such as iMentor interactive are much more expensive: their platform came with a price-tag of around 1.5m US-dollars.


The internet can serve to abolish geographical distance as an obstacle to the growth of an organisation or the spread of an idea. Potential supporters can be included via social and other networks and global networks can be coordinated. The less an organisation seeks to centrally control its individual cells, the quicker it can grow in this way. A certain degree of overall coordination and steering is always necessary, however. For these purposes, either the numerous free tools available will do the trick, or else individual solutions need to be programmed. This can mean considerable costs. For the growth and expansion of a social organisation, which serves the wellbeing of the community, these costs are often justified however. But donors are still often reluctant to invest in “ICT for good”, in part because the development of this area is still in its early stages and lack of expertise leads to lack of confidence. The potential of digital tools for scaling concepts which promote the general good is enormous, however, and should be urgently researched and exploited. This trend is sponsored by the Bertelsmann Foundation with their project “Effekt^n: Growth and Effectiveness in Civil Society”.