Successful Scaling – The Challenge Network

Patrick Shine

This is written as I step down from chairing the Board of Trustees of The Challenge Network – a charity that has shown extraordinary growth. Having starting with three people sharing an office, three years later it has 170 staff and expects to work with 10,000 young people through the National Citizen Service programme this summer. It's been an extraordinary journey, and reflecting on this a number of principles that underpin successful scaling can be clearly seen.

Much of the recent debate around scaling social organisations has revolved around the lack of access to capital (e.g. Central Surrey Healthcare), and this has energised the creation of Big Society Capital and renewed interest in investment readiness. However, research we have recently done for an upcoming paper on scaling – based on two rapidly scaling charities we have been closely involved with – demonstrate that access the capital is neither necessary nor sufficient for scaling. Rather the central principles are:

  • the simplicity of the big idea
  • the market structure or context
  • and most importantly, the quality of execution, and by extension the quality of the management

One of our case studies is The Challenge Network, which delivers approximately 30% of the government’s National Citizen Service (NCS) programme. As such it is the leading provider among over 20 other organisations. It has been able to retain this leading position for two main reasons:

  • It is the only provider that explicitly targets social mixing in all activities (a key feature of NCS).
  • It has an excellent sales track record in attracting participants, filling 97% of its target in 2011.

As a result the charity has grown by 300% per annum and has projected income of £16 million in 2012. If anyone can find a similar example of growth in a delivery organisation I would love to know about it! In doing so it has had to persuade a wide range of expert stakeholders of its potential to deliver at scale; and then prove they had done so to a high standard through monitoring and evaluation.

Reflecting on the journey I contribute the success to three main factors:

The market context

A government programmewith strong political will drove demand, so that any provider that maintained their market share of this programme would experience  growth of 200-300%. The marketing success of the Challenge, driving the high percentage of places filled, drove its ability to keep up with this growing demand despite increasing numbers of new entrants.

The quality of execution

From the outset, the embryonic team designed processes to cope with growth. These could be found in the marketing model (deploying sophisticated CRM systems and a high engagement multi-touch methodology); delivery logistics (coaches, residential, food, minibuses); cash flow management (crucial in a single year contract where most expenditure is incurred towards the end of the year); or the training of the team mentors that spend the most time with the young participants. The excellent feedback from participants is a testament to this planning, preparation and attention to detail. Indeed, they were strong enough to survive the disruption of the riots last summer, when the schedules for 360 participants were re-arranged within 24 hours.

The quality of the people

During my three years as Chairman I have come to know many of the team and seen them in action. Two features stand out and I believe both are essential in a rapidly scaling organisation.

○ The skill set of the Senior Leadership Team. I'm fond of arguing that this track record could not have been achieved if the Leaders didn’t have blue-chip business experience from organisations such as McKinsey and Procter & Gamble.

○ The ability to maintain a consistent culture when the workforce doubles or more each year. At every level and in every role, teams are highly capable, highly motivated, and highly aligned with the values of the organisation. In a recent survey 95% of staff said they would recommend working there to a friend.

Growing rapidly exposes an organisation to serious challenges - there can be no weak links in either people or processes. The Challenge is an excellent example of an organisation that was built with the consistency and leadership to meet the demand from large amount of customer without loss of quality - and I'm sure it will continue to do so.

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