What does it take to scale social impact?

Twenty years ago, Indian activist Arbind Singh pleaded with local officials to address the issues facing the urban poor. The state government of Bihar had recently carried out a massive antiencroachment drive that left thousands of street vendors without the means to earn a living. Across India, cities were being ‘beautified’—which in part meant kicking out vendors. The urban poor were largely ignored and unwanted.

Frustrated, Arbind launched Nidan. It was an organisation that worked with informal workers to address their needs and to help them fight for their rights. Many paid hefty, informal “tariffs” for their vending spaces and frequently faced harassment from the police. With Nidan’s support, they began to protest and gained more attention from the local municipal government. However, Arbind knew that without changes at the national level, gains would be slow and require action city by city.

In 2003, the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) was established as an independent sister organisation that enabled the vendors to set their own priorities and advocacy activities. Nidan aggressively expanded its presence beyond the state of Bihar to 29 states believing that a national movement would greatly increase their legislative influence. Over the next decade, NASVI’s members would advocate tirelessly for the passage of policies that addressed their needs.

Earlier this year, India passed the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, a law that recognised street vendors and provided many important protections for their wellbeing. While the work was by no means complete, establishing a firm, legal basis for their demands was a significant achievement.

Around the world, there are many people like Arbind who dream of scaling a movement to affect the lives of thousands, even millions. Yet most of them fail. What is it then that Nidan and other organisations that succeeded in taking their impact to scale do differently?

At the BRAC Social Innovation Lab based in Bangladesh, we have spent the last two years studying precisely this question. While development overall is brimming with pilots and small organisations, South Asia in particular has given rise to a number of large-scale organisations and movements that buck the trend. We worked closely with practitioners in five South Asian organisations, including BRAC, to understand how they conceptualised scale and ensured that their initiatives succeeded at scale.

Read in full: What does it take to scale social impact?: Insights from South Asia