Q&A: CARE's Scale X Design Accelerator program aims to bridge the gap between impact and scale

Dar Vanderbeck, chief innovation officer at CARE, addresses the audience during "pitch practice" for the organization's Scale X Design Challenge. Viewers can catch the competition live at facebook.com/CAREfans on Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. EST. Photo by: Scott Valladares / CARE

It took 21 years for CARE’s Village Savings & Loan Associations to go from a small pilot in remote Niger to more than 5 million people in 26 countries across sub-Saharan Africa. For CARE’s Chief Innovation Officer Dar Vanderbeck, the time it takes development organizations to replicate their most successful programs doesn’t match the urgency of solving global poverty.

“There is a long, sad desert between having a successful pilot and being meaningfully scaled,” Vanderbeck told Devex.

“This is fundamentally about disrupting and re-designing how development is done and conceptualized, how we design our solutions for impact at scale and sustainability, and how we equip our leaders to act boldly in service of our mission.”

— Dar Vanderbeck, chief innovation officer, CARE

Last year, CARE launched the Scale X Design Accelerator, a program designed in collaboration with a range of actors to help the organization’s most impactful initiatives achieve scale. Partners included the Unreasonable Institute, an accelerator for social entrepreneurs; GRID Impact, a firm that specializes in human-centered design; community organizing experts Rhize; and Medora Ventures for their expertise in impact investing.

Since April 2016, 15 teams leading innovative projects around the world — from micro-franchising kiosks selling agricultural inputs for smallholder farmers in Bangladesh, to a program promoting gender equality and non-violence among young men in the Balkans, and a mobile app facilitating land registration in Tanzania — have been following this tailor-made curriculum, first remotely, then in a 10-day boot camp at CARE’s headquarters in Atlanta.

On Jan. 26, this curriculum will culminate in the first CARE Scale X Design Challenge, where teams will compete for three $150,000 cash prizes. Ahead of the event, Devex spoke with Vanderbeck about CARE’s vision for the accelerator and the importance of development organizations’ fostering a culture of change. Below are more highlights from this conversation.

What is the Scale X Design Challenge, and how does it fit within CARE's strategy for the next few years?

The Scale X Design Challenge was designed to answer the question of “How do we close the gap between innovation, impact and scale?” We asked, “Who knows something about speeding the pace of innovation? Who knows something about meaningful scale?” That naturally led us to the accelerator model.

We looked at probably 60 different accelerators … and brokered a bunch of interesting partnerships in the process. But we realized that while there was kind of an algorithm for accelerators that worked, there wasn't really an off-the-shelf solution for development practitioners specifically. Instead of a single entrepreneur looking for funding, we're often looking at a team of people that have been developing a program under a donor project cycle.

We applied the ingredients of a great accelerator program, and this has forced us to do three news things: 1) introduce new skills and cultivate adaptive mindsets; 2) create community and a global cohort of finalists; and 3) build pathways to leverage existing resources — such as funding, networks and mentorship — in new and more iterative ways.

This is fundamentally about disrupting and re-designing how development is done and conceptualized, how we design our solutions for impact at scale and sustainability, and how we equip our leaders to act boldly in service of our mission. We do see this to be fundamental to our core strategy of adapting to the world and being a leader in achieving social justice and alleviating poverty, which is our mission.

You're using terms from the business sector, like "business model" and "entrepreneurship.” Do these programs aim to become financially sustainable, or are you just using a business framework to achieve scale?

Both, actually. With this first cohort, we've seen a few different models emerge, from a hopefully financially sustainable social enterprise to technology, to a more traditional development program model that will need some creative partnerships in order to scale effectively. It's actually a huge learning experience for us. We talk a lot about sustainability, but through the accelerator we have discovered different emerging pathways to reach scale, from social enterprise, to consulting, to scaling through social movements or legislative change — and all have different models. The lean business canvas has given us language to define our “user,” our channel partners, our various revenue channels — but they apply to our teams in different ways.

How do you think innovation can help the development sector as a whole to design more efficient interventions on the ground?

At the most meta level, it's about decolonizing development… about whose perspectives get translated into programming and how. And I think that this process of introducing ideas, of keeping the human experience of who we're trying to serve front and center, is an important challenge to the norms of our sector.

The word scale is thrown around a bunch in the worlds of development and innovation, and I came to CARE in this role being a bit skeptical of it, because often we scale the wrong things. And there is a frenzy around multiplication that makes impact kind of secondary. At the same time, the solutions that do eventually scale represent a fraction of the collective efforts and funding for international aid. In the development sector, successfully scaled solutions remain outliers rather than the norm, while the average project’s budget fell to under $1 million and the lifecycle shrank to less than two years. Some call this trend “pilotitis.”

With that said, you can't deny the amount of global suffering, injustice and poverty right now across the world. The solutions are there and the urgency is great. In order to meet the world’s challenges, we need to look across sectors for the best-in-class, most cutting-edge models we have… to use evidence to identify what is working and then build creative pathways to scale those solutions to meet the world’s needs. This is a real imperative for CARE, but also for our entire sector. It's a great opportunity to reach beyond traditional actors and frameworks and aggressively look for other approaches to defeat poverty and achieve social justice.

What practical advice would you have for a development organization that is trying to open up innovation?

Two things. The first is to get crystal clear on your mission in the world. There is an enthusiasm around various technological innovations, which is great, but we have seen peer organizations get lost in the fray of the “new shiny thing.” At CARE, our mission is to save lives, defeat poverty and achieve social justice. And we need to fully align our efforts to deliver that as best we can. Sometimes the solutions are technological, but we need to be a little bit more fundamental in understanding our aspirations and our raison d'être in the world as an organization. To be clear, CARE is not a product company, and while products can unlock and aid our efforts, minding the difference in process between building consumer-based products and unlocking the power of people in service of justice and equity is very important.

The second thing is taking a community organizer's approach to creating change, as defined by Professor Marshall Ganz. This happens in three ways: The first is to identify your leaders and create an opportunity for everyone to step up into leadership. We often see that every organization has 10 or 12 go-to people who are considered leaders. We really need to create the kind of fertile ground for anyone to be able to step up into leadership. The second is to develop community around those leaders — to celebrate and strengthen — and I think that's one of the things that this accelerator is really trying to do. And the third is to build power out of that community.

Looking beyond the event on Jan. 26 in New York, what can we expect to see from CARE’s innovation initiatives?

We’ll be launching our second cohort in the spring, and we’re looking to partner with two to three peer organizations that would be interested in joining us in the second year. We'll also be looking at brokering partnerships with more institutional partners to think about building those bridges to meaningful scale.

Tune in to the first CARE Scale X Design Challenge on January 26 at 7 p.m. EST to see teams compete for three $150,000 cash prizes for innovation in development.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

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