Why ‘what’s your endgame?’ is a better question for aid agencies than ‘how do we go to scale?’

Maybe it’s partly an age thing, but a lot of senior people in the aid business seem to obsess about scale. What’s the point of running a few projects, however

It can end in tears
Going to scale can end in tears

successful? No, the only worthwhile end is ‘going to scale’, affecting the lives of millions of people, not a few hundred. It’s understandable and laudably ambitious, but it can have some bad side effects:

  • It can lead to an outbreak of ‘best practicitis’, ‘rolling out’ cookie cutter programmes in dozens of countries, when all the Doing Development Differently work shows that approach doesn’t work – solutions have to be crafted by local actors, and will differ according to context.
  • It can lead to a ‘bigger is better’ rush to boost income, leading to jumping into bed with bad guys, or reversing decades of progress in reducing the use of emotive ‘poverty porn’ fund raising images.
  • It promotes a ‘we know best’ arrogance that ignores local solutions.

But a brilliant piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review calls for a rethink and proposes some really useful ways to go about it:

‘Most nonprofits never reach the organizational scale that they would need to catalyze change on their own. High structural barriers limit their access to the funding required to grow in a significant and sustainable way. Given those barriers, it’s time for nonprofit leaders to ask a more fundamental question than “How do you scale up?” Instead, we urge them to consider a different question: “What’s your endgame?”

An endgame is the specific role that a nonprofit intends to play in the overall solution to a social problem, once it has proven the effectiveness of its core model or intervention. We believe that there are six endgames for nonprofits to consider—and only one of them involves scaling up in order to sustain and expand an existing service. Nonprofits, we argue, should measure their success by how they are helping to meet the total addressable challenge in a particular issue area. In most cases, nonprofit leaders should see their organization as a time-bound effort to reach one of those six endgames.

So what is your endgame? Is it “continuous growth and ever greater scale”? In light of the enormous challenges that exist within the social sector, that is an easy and compelling answer for nonprofit leaders to give. But it may not be the right answer.’

And here’s their six endgames, and their implications for how we work – well worth reading and thinking about this. I’d love to hear your reactions.


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5 Responses to “Why ‘what’s your endgame?’ is a better question for aid agencies than ‘how do we go to scale?’”
  1. Tony Addison

    Good post Duncan. I buy the argument for the non-profits. But the “aid business” is far from homogenous, so you might want to distinguish between the non-profit organizations and the official aid agencies on the ‘going to scale’ issue. While going to scale can lead official aid agencies over-reach themselves, a lot of the scale debate on the aid agency front arises from the evidence that there are still too many small bilateral aid projects, sucking up time and resources to the cost of the recipients (and too little progress on all the laudable aims of Busan, Paris etc). That said, if the bigger efforts of the official donors are not well-designed and implemented then the blunders have bigger costs for the partners. So what to do?

  2. Essi Lindstedt

    I can think of several implementing NGOs and research organisations who fit into those six categories, with varying degrees of effectiveness. It would be interesting to think about how agencies blend their endgames recognising that time, unlike a game of chess, does not stop (we hope) and situations continue to change. Or perhaps better to look at it from the perspective of end-users, which endgames suit their needs best, for now.

  3. Jörg Freiberg

    I like the idea of engames and it is probably valid at least for bilateral donors. Basic idea of development aid is to Support development processes, and not to Substitute internal processes by external Intervention. Development aid should be understood as opportunity to experiment and to learn from experiments. It needs by definition an idea of “endgame” or an Exit strategy to avoid aid dependency. The bigger programs are, the more difficult it is to realize an Exit strategy. And it is this reason why Paris, etc. failed by focussing more on how to invest financial resources in a cost-effective way from the Point of view of the Investor instead of investing in improving institutional and human capacity.

  4. Mona Mishra

    Great post! Got me thinking! Whether through the rhetoric of scale or through this framework of ‘endgame’ goals – aid agencies of shapes and sizes are getting closer to admitting that their boutique projects are not making the cut any longer. That key message is still being drummed into action. I am aware that several agencies (E.g. UNDP) have tried to unpack ‘scale’ and have their own version of the 6 endgame parameters you have mentioned. These parameters seen in conjunction with better design through the Theory of Change process (oops i said it!) should be helpful in reducing the redundancy of a lot of development projects we see on the ground today.

  5. The Our Community team considered the “What’s your endgame?” article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review such a game-changer, we’ve partnered with Philanthropy Australia to bring one of its co-authors, Alive Gugelev, to Australia to present on endgame theory for the not-for-profit sector in November.

    I’m not usually one to chime in with promotional plugs but on this occasion, I thought your readers might like to know that there’s an opportunity for further direct learning in this area. Those intersted can read more at http://www.communitydirectors.com.au/endgame