Partnerships that drive scaling

Patrick Shine

Last week saw a new contribution to the literature on scaling social impact. Titled “When Bees Meet Trees - how large social sector organisations can help scale social innovation” the research project is co-authored by Owen Jarvis and Ruth Marvel as part of their Clore Social Leadership Programme. It is an excellent report, well designed, thorough, and well worth reading.

We’ve always recognised that successful scaling requires at least one key relationship with a large partner / stakeholder. This extends the capacity of the innovator, which is normally small and early stage, gives it credibility, and simplifies the supply chain. Most importantly they assist in building a “pipeline” of new business opportunities. Jarvis and Marvel’s paper examines how large charities, housing associations etc. can play this role, arguing that their potential has been overlooked in recent research which focussed on the role of business and the public sector in scaling social innovation.

Although the research concentrates on the social sector, it uses a framework that can be applied more broadly in examining the relationship between innovators and partners for scale. The framework they use suggests that social change requires different actors to play different but complementary roles, and uses the analogy of the alliance between the ‘bees’ and the ‘trees’ (after Geoff Mulgan’s 2006 paper). They argue that effective innovation relies heavily on ‘cross-pollination’, applying ideas from one area to problems in another, and that this underlines the importance of effective connections between different organisations and sectors.

From this the authors develop the notion of ‘institutional entrepreneurs’ who, based in the large partner organisations, can create the social, political and economic conditions in which new innovations can thrive. This is very important. Our own experience of engaging with partners for scale, whatever the sector, is that two things are necessary for an effective long-term relationship.

1. The overall culture has to be conducive. This can be based on formal values, such as the Johnson and Johnson Credo, or a state of mind, such as the New Economy team in Greater Manchester.

2. There need to be individuals who can personify the engagement and drive it forward. A good example is Steve Gapik at British Gas, who is responsible for their £1bn ECO obligation within the Local Authority and Housing Association Sector. Steve played a critical role in engaging with our Social Business Partnership venture as part of British Gas’ commitment to social enterprises.

And to give a real life example of a social sector partner from our own experience, our Nurse First venture supported district nurses in Cornwall to engage with Age UK. The result was a new programme that worked with high-risk older people to reduce their admissions to hospital through better co-ordination between services provided by the NHS and voluntary organisations. Estimated savings from a £100,000 investment were £2.2m – something really worth scaling!

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