Impact-led organisations – and the social impact sector more broadly – are increasingly recognising that scaling a solution does not always result in systems change. Organisations can often scale direct interventions without addressing root causes, and in so doing, fail to disrupt the system as a whole. But systems change and scaling a solution can be concurrent and interlinked, and if impact-led organisations have the right funding, mindsets and support, they can successfully pursue both pathways to make a meaningful dent in societal problems. 

Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, a social enterprise in South Africa working in the youth unemployment sector, is a powerful example of this. Harambee has shifted from direct delivery of an inclusive hiring model (through which to date they have enabled over 950,000 pathways to earning) to simultaneously working alongside industry and government to create an inclusive hiring environment in which employers are incentivised to hire young people. They know that direct delivery gives them the expertise and credibility needed to influence and support government and employers; and working closely with these stakeholders to build an enabling environment for young people will ultimately make a much bigger dent in the problem of youth unemployment. 

We believe that scaling a solution and achieving systems change simultaneously is possible when organisations embrace the right kind of mindset. This involves three key components: clarifying an end-game, leveraging lean experimentation, and re-thinking success metrics.

The first is defining a clear end game, i.e., the most effective way to scale your impact. Defining the right end game is 100x’s starting point for any organisation that enters its accelerator programme. Supporting founders to first consider what needs to happen to disrupt a system, and secondly what their organisation’s role is in that is critical. One way to frame impact scaling ambitions and end games is to think of it as scaling ‘Up, Out or Down’ . Scaling ‘Up’ involves influencing power structures such as governments, larger international institutions or markets with the intention to change the ‘rules of the game’. Scaling ‘Out’ is all about multiplying reach and access to solutions far and wide, such as through open sourcing or franchising. Scaling ‘Down’ is best understood as influencing hearts and minds: changing culture, societal norms and understandings through methods like campaigning.

From day one, Harambee’s end game has been to support the government to solve the problem of youth unemployment at a systems level in South Africa. This meant they prioritised working with a government partner early on to test their model at scale. And when an opportunity emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic to become a government service provider, Harambee didn’t hesitate. Harambee temporarily turned its contact centre, staffed by young people for the purpose of supporting youth job seekers, into a call centre that supported the Unemployment Insurance Fund’s COVID-19 payouts. This represented a complete shift from Harambee’s core business – but was a powerful way to build trust and credibility with the government, and to get an insider view of how government systems work, essential for achieving Harambee’s end game. In addition, this project enabled Harambee to experiment with the introduction of an in-bound call centre channel, which has since been permanently adopted.

The second component is lean experimentation. Spring Impact’s mantra ‘test, don’t debate’ encourages organisations to go out into the real world early and frequently to understand how constituents and other stakeholders respond to assumptions. Organisations that practise the discipline of tracking data, and respond to data by either iterating, pivoting or scaling, are better placed to learn and be comfortable with emergence, which is core to systems change work. Harambee is renowned for lean experimentation, which they are able to do because of their proximity to their constituents. Via their call centre staff, who are previously unemployed youth, Harambee is in touch with young people over 2,000-5,000 times every day. This offers a rapid feedback loop to test ideas, and allows them to capture huge volumes of data on young people’s experiences in trying to access the labour market, and how the system needs to change to best serve them. Harambee is committed to keeping young people at the heart of everything that they do. They stay in love with the problem, and not their solutions. This means that they continuously iterate their solutions, based on what the problem requires of them.

The third component involves re-thinking success metrics. To achieve systems change, we need to move away from ‘vanity metrics’ often involved in scaling a solution (ie how many people reached), which overwhelmingly incentivise organisations to focus on proving they are doing good work. Instead, we must prioritise metrics that encourage the testing and learning necessary for effective systems change. Key impact metrics that Harambee focuses on in its systems change work include ‘what different mindsets are we seeing among employers?’, ‘how engaged is the government on the problem of youth unemployment?’ and ‘are there enough incentives in place for employers to hire inclusively?’

Embracing these methods doesn’t mean that the journey is easy. Systems change is slow, uncertain, complex, and hard to control, which means striving towards this goal often requires a radically different way of thinking and working. Harambee has felt this keenly: they have always been an agile and responsive organisation, proud of their operational excellence, but working on systems change has required the team to slow down and embrace the challenge of influencing where they do not control. Harambee has seen the results of these relentless efforts in that their model to pathway young people into learning and earning opportunities has been adopted at a national level in South Africa, and they are an anchor partner in the country’s plan to address the youth unemployment crisis.

Pursuing scale and systems change simultaneously also presents challenges for raising capital. While many philanthropic funders want to support entrepreneurs to create systems change, very few provide the core, multi-year, patient, flexible funding that makes it possible. And impact investors, who need to see a clear road to profitability, often perceive systems change as a distraction from building a sustainable business model.

We should not underestimate just how hard it is for impact-led organisations to hold these dual missions of scaling a solution and systems change. But if organisations adopt a lean impact mindset, set a clear end-game, and critically, are given the right kind of funding and support, it is possible.

Harambee is an excellent example of how systems change and direct delivery can work hand-in-hand, and if we want to solve problems at scale, we must rise to the size of the challenge and unashamedly strive for both.

Source: Co-authored by Emma Colenbrander at Spring Impact, Nell Lemaistre at 100x Accelerator, and Kasthuri Soni and Sharmi Surianarain from Harambee.

This piece was produced following a side event co-hosted by Spring Impact, 100x Accelerator and Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator at the Skoll World Forum 2023. Thank you to the Skoll Foundation for bringing together so many incredible leaders and change-makers for a week in Oxford, to Marmalade for generously hosting the Skoll ecosystem events,  and to everyone who made the time and effort to join our event at the Forum.

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