Navigating the journey to scale: can a strategy really make a difference?

Abi Taylor
Published in
7 min readMay 20, 2021


Abi Taylor, innovation manager for Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund, shares the redesigned selection and support process trialled during the shortlist for the programme’s Journey to Scale initiative, which is designed to accelerate potential humanitarian solutions as they transition to scale.

A human hand touches a plasma ball
Photo by Ramón Salinero on Unsplash

We know it is extremely difficult to drive the widespread adoption of innovations, even when they have been proven effective through pilot projects.

Building on a decade of experience, including supporting innovations as they transition to scale and conducting research on the various barriers they may face, we have tested a new approach to finding and enabling the best innovations to scale.

This blog explains our approach, through which the focal point is the scaling strategy rather than just the potential of the innovation — taking a more nuanced approach to planning for the final stage of the innovation journey.

We believe more innovations with the promise to improve outcomes for people affected by crisis will ultimately realise their potential if they are guided by a robust, and flexible, scaling strategy.

Moving from pilot to scale

Piloting an innovation is about testing whether the solution works in a humanitarian context. Scaling an innovation is then about taking that proven solution and integrating it into existing programmes and systems.

While piloting is not easy by any measure, pilots are usually designed as a project to be delivered within a specific timeframe, to a limited budget and with a specific group of people (in terms of both users and target impact group). The defined scope is also more likely to ensure the project fits with the tolerance for risk of humanitarian decision makers.

Credit: ©Tdh/Abayomi Akande. Gravit’eau in Temporary Learning Space. Mafa camp, Nigeria, 2019.

When it comes to scaling, it’s much more difficult to define the scope as a finite project.

Integrating new ways of working into an established system is difficult in any environment. This is amplified in the humanitarian sector.

Achieving widespread implementation of an innovation requires significant time and money, deeper commitments from partner organisations, and delivery models that will enable the solution to be used by more people with less hands-on involvement from the innovation team.

More people will be involved in decision making about when, where and how to roll out the innovation, more people will use the innovation, and more people will benefit from the innovation — all leading to a slow and complicated process.

The perception of risk can increase by an order of magnitude as the innovation is promoted as an alternative to tried and tested ways of working, and aid agencies need to carefully mitigate any risks that transition to a new solution could lead to gaps in provision for people affected by crises.

Navigating the journey

The second round of our Journey to Scale initiative responded to this challenge by requiring and supporting shortlisted teams to develop ‘scaling strategies’.

Following an open call for applications, 10 diverse projects were shortlisted in mid-2020, spanning WASH, GBV, nutrition, mental health, early warning systems for disaster risk reduction and conflict, programme monitoring, shelter, energy and the environment.

The scaling strategies are designed to enable each team to break down the scaling journey into its component parts, enabling them to identify realistic and practical roadmaps to achieve their goals.

We provided a curriculum of support to the ten shortlisted teams over a four-month period, specifically focused on helping each team to develop a scaling vision and a comprehensive strategy for realising that vision.

It was a more intensive process than anything we’ve done before, entailing a series of whole-cohort workshops and one-to-one support. The resulting scaling strategies were submitted as final funding applications, with a total of five grants ultimately awarded.

We know it takes a lot of time to develop a good strategy, so we provided £10,000 funding for each shortlisted team in contribution to the staff time required to fully participate.

Having completed the process, we know many teams put in huge amounts of energy and focus, beyond what the seed funding covered . It seems inevitable that this will be the case, particularly for the those who include multiple team members. We recommend making available the maximum amount of funding possible, and to make that funding flexible for the teams to use as required.

The HIF’s strategy development process

The initial workshops guided the teams to develop nuanced strategic visions for scale, working through key questions: Where is the innovation now? What is the medium- and long-term ambition? What transition is needed to achieve the vision and goal?

The foundational workshops also provided a high-level overview of each core component of a scaling strategy, as well as sessions on ethical and inclusive approaches to innovation.

After these introductory sessions, the teams could choose to attend ‘deep dive’ workshops covering the seven core components of a scaling strategy: Solution Stress Test, Evidence, Customer and Market, Business Models, Finance, Team and Organisational Development, and Partnerships for Scaling. The teams selected which workshops they would attend, based on their individual scaling vision and priority areas identified through the initial visioning process.

Description: Visual of the strategy development curriculum content.

This comprehensive approach provided the teams with a much broader perspective of the complex factors that would influence their scaling journeys.

After participating, one of the teams reflected: “I learned that my ‘priorities’ before the course were completely misplaced. I was chasing specific ‘strategies’ for engaging partners or creating opportunities — and this course helped focus our team on the internal barriers, which will really prevent us from achieving exponential scale (organising the team properly, and designing the product to be sustainable across geographies while still delivering a high-quality of service that is tailored to the context & target impact group).”

The final workshop, delivered virtually over three, three-hour sessions, provided an opportunity for the teams to pitch and receive feedback on their newly-developed scaling strategies to an external audience. This audience included representatives from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Humanitarian Innovation Fund’s independent funding committee.

Can a strategy really make a difference?

The complexity of scaling can be daunting for innovation teams and we know from funding over 200 innovation projects that teams often don’t know where to start with this journey. We also know that innovation teams struggle to create the time and space to proactively develop strategies for taking their innovation to scale.

After participating, one of the participants told us: “Our team has been wanting to organise a Strategy Summit for four years now. We were never able to make it happen until the HIF came along with this programme.”

The strategy development process was designed to provide space for the teams to work together on the long-term visioning, and to provide training and mentoring to help prepare teams for their transitions to scale.

Credit: This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC.

Investing in strategy development with all shortlisted teams was also a way to strengthen our own grant-making process.

It can be difficult to identify the best innovations and teams for an initiative like Journey to Scale, judging where the funding and additional support might have catalytic potential.

Using the scaling strategies as a central element of the final application process enabled our independent funding committee to effectively evaluate which teams offered the strongest propositions against the objectives of Journey to Scale, potential for impact, feasibility and value for money. It provided a lens to evaluate the innovations in a way that captured the complexity of the full scaling journey.

Aside from the logistical operation of delivering the entire support curriculum virtually (early in the COVID-19 pandemic and first lockdown in the UK, when we were all figuring out new ways of working), the trickiest aspect to balance was the impact of connecting non-financial support with the grant-making process.

Though we continually emphasised that, as a team, we are not involved in grant decision making — that role is the responsibility of our independent funding committee — multiple teams reported a shared “sense of being constantly evaluated”. This was a consequence we were willing to accept in order to work closely with the teams.

Short of ‘outsourcing’ the strategy development support entirely to another organisation, this will always be a line we tread carefully. Through our monitoring and evaluation follow-up, the teams all said they would recommend the programme to a friend or colleague — with some adding the caveat not to underestimate how time and resource intensive it was.

As we continue to learn and adapt the way we support humanitarian innovation, we are committed to sharing what works — and what can be done better.

We encourage other funders and supporters of innovation to invest in robust, structured processes like this one, and are excited to learn from what others have done to support teams to scale their innovations.

We are already working with the Dutch Relief Alliance on their Innovation Readiness to Scale funding call, and have coordinated with the Education Cannot Wait-funded Humanitarian Education Accelerator (HEA) team as they prepared to launch their second phase. If you are working on a similar programme, we are keen to connect with you.

We will be publishing many of the resources we updated for this process on our Humanitarian Innovation Guide — take a look at the scaling strategy template and watch this space for further additions.

In the meantime, if you’re an innovator and want to develop your own scaling strategy, please reach out. We’ll be very happy to talk, identify potential starting points and share tools and templates.

The HIF team worked closely with Ian Gray (Gray Dot Catalyst), Lydia Tanner (The Research People) and Prof. John Bessant (University of Exeter, Managing Innovation) on the design, delivery, and evaluation of the strategy development curriculum. We are extremely grateful for their inspiration, creativity and shared commitment to strengthening scaling pathways for humanitarian innovators.



Abi Taylor
Writer for

Humanitarian innovation manager. Grant maker. Author (Managing Humanitarian Innovation, Practical Action Publishing)