Duke Launches ‘Scaling Pathways’ Initiative For Growing Social Enterprises

Partners with Skoll Foundation, USAID, & Mercy Corps for reports, case studies, webinars

“I think we have this myth that scaling is going to be this straight-line exercise. That you’ll do a pilot program of whatever your intervention is and find some evidence that it works. And from there, you get the funding and you’re off to the races,” says Erin Worsham, who heads up the Center for the Advancement of Social Enterprise (CASE) at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

Erin Worsham says there’s a prevailing myth when it comes to entrepreneurship.

“I think we have this myth that scaling is going to be this straight-line exercise. That you’ll do a pilot program of whatever your intervention is and find some evidence that it works. And from there, you get the funding and you’re off to the races,” she says.

Worsham, who heads up the Center for the Advancement of Social Enterprise (CASE) at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, says social entrepreneurs have it even tougher.

“Unlike in the commercial sector where if you have a good product, you can just sell it and just grow and grow and scale your bottom line,” Worsham continues, “in the social sector, it’s not quite that straightforward.”

The reasons are numerous. First, social entrepreneurs are often trying to tackle entrenched social and environmental issues. They are not only trying to sell a product or service — they’re also attempting to change a status quo. “The ways social entrepreneurs tackle problems are, in some ways, more complex than traditional entrepreneurs,” Worsham maintains.

Erin Worsham of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Courtesy photo


Worsham’s office recently created resources to help. With support from the Skoll Foundation, USAID’s Global Development Lab, and Mercy Corps, CASE launched Scaling Pathways, a series of case studies and a webinar to help social entrepreneurs scale. In 2012, the Skoll Foundation and USAID’s Global Development Lab pooled their portfolios and resources and picked eight “proven, transformative social enterprises to scale their impact,” according to Mercy Corps’ website. They called it the Innovation Investment Alliance and have deployed $50 million into the eight ventures. The social entrepreneurs have also received coaching support from Skoll and USAID.

In addition to helping the eight ventures, the initiative also wanted to learn from the investing and coaching. So they brought Duke’s CASE into the fold. “They brought us on to be a third party that could start to help them understand the lessons learned from these organizations,” Worsham says.

Worsham’s team began by choosing three of the eight social enterprises to do “deep-dive case studies” to fully understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to scaling. The three they selected were some of the first to receive funding through the initiative and included Evidence Action, Imazon, and VisionSpring.


After completing and publishing the three in-depth case studies last month, Worsham says on the surface, they’ve confirmed what they already knew.

“Scaling in the social impact space is so hard. It’s incredibly complex,” she says. “If you look the field of social entrepreneurship, there are hundreds of thousands of new ideas and enterprises that emerge and are trying to tackle a social problem.”

Worsham says her and her colleagues see this more and more at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. CASE was established almost 15 years ago and since Worsham joined the team in 2009, she says she’s seen consistent increase in business students entering with varying levels of social entrepreneurship interest. During the last academic year, Worsham says, 361 full-time MBAs interacted in some way with CASE. “Almost half of the student body is interacting with CASE during their time at Duke Fuqua,” she says.

Between new students with ideas and outside ventures reaching out for help, Worsham says her office has seen a lot of good venture ideas. But not many are making it to a full-fledged scaling model. “If you think about how many of them are actually getting to scaled impact — how many of them are actually moving the needle on the problem they are trying to solve — the number is much, much fewer,” Worsham maintains.


The first lesson Worsham and her team found from the three case studies is what Worsham calls a common misconception of expecting entrepreneurship to be a linear path. “You’ve got a pilot that works. You’ve got the funding. And now you’re just going to scale and solve the problem you’re trying to solve,” Worsham says.

“As a field, we’re very comfortable experimenting and iterating during the pilot phase to see if we can get things right, if we can figure out a pilot that works,” Worsham continues. But, once there is an initial pilot, she says, there is an expectation of a linear path. “What we saw is that’s just not true,” Worsham says.

In fact, the study reads, “(S)ocial enterprises and funders expect iteration during, but often not after, pilot tests. However, these case studies show that the road to scale is complex and therefore requires experimentation, feedback loops, and sometimes failure. Reaching systems change and transformative scale involves disrupting the status quo, which is not a linear process but entails pivots along the way.”

The next big lesson in the main report is a logical progression from the first — there are multiple pathways to scale. The ventures studied used all sorts of paths — like partnering, advocacy, and organic growth, among others — to get to scale. Lastly, the report identifies common roadblocks social entrepreneurs experience.


The report uses a road-trip metaphor to flesh out the five most common roadblocks to scaling. First, the report says, scaling can be doomed from “starting without fuel.” Or, simply not having the correct people or systems in place at the foundation. Next, driving blind, or “not setting clear processes and trip wires that indicate when it is time to pivot,” can derail scaling. Another potential problem is sticking to the map, or not iterating and pivoting. Not partnering or taking advantage of existing partnerships is the fourth roadblock. And the final roadblock comes down to “ignoring the 30,000-foot view” — not stepping back from the day-to-day details to look at the big picture.

Of the five, one of the most important is too much “sticking to the map,” according to Worsham.

“There are many pivots and twists and turns that happen along the way,” Worsham explains. “As you take that pilot to scale, you’re going to have to continue to iterate and adapt and pivot along the way.”

Worsham says the report and case studies, which are all available online for free, are beneficial for entrepreneurs and funders, alike. “The core audience in my mind is social entrepreneurs that are thinking about scaling, about to start scaling, or have already started the scaling process.”