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On the Cusp between quality and quantity, effectiveness and harm

‘On the Cusp’ means:

1. On the threshold or verge of a development or action.

2. At the dividing line or border of two conditions or categories.

The Community for Understanding Scale Up (CUSP) is a group of nine organizations with robust experience in developing social norms change methodologies that are now being scaled across many regions and contexts: the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP), Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity (IMAGE), the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University, the Oxfam-initiated “We Can” campaign, Puntos de Encuentro, Raising Voices, Salamander Trust, Sonke Gender Justice, and Tostan. CUSP members currently support programs in Latin America, Africa, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and South Asia.

CUSP originated in 2016, when Raising Voices Co-Founder and Co-Director Lori Michau and Salamander Trust Founding Director Alice Welbourn began informal conversations about challenges and opportunities in their methodologies (SASA! and Stepping Stones, respectively) being taken to scale. These methodologies have received increasing attention from donors and policy-makers wishing to take them to scale, ushering in numerous possibilities to create long-lasting, gender transformative change around the world. However, this growing interest has also come at a cost—adapting and scaling without a clear understanding of the methodologies’ design and intent can cause harm and risk to women and communities.  “It was a feeling of powerlessness…talking about principles of safe, ethical programming in discussions of scale yet feeling isolated and alone in my concerns – it seemed my voice alone didn’t count for much,” says Lori. Alice describes how “CUSP has been a proactive way to discuss, reflect, and work through common challenges across our membership, ultimately finding inspiration through a collective voice”.

Other members of CUSP, who have seen their own locally based programs draw international attention, have strongly resonated with the themes that emerged through the space provided by this community of practice. “My belief in the power of collective communication for influencing change in actors’ approaches motivated me to join the group,” says Ellen Bajenja of Salamander Trust. Many CUSP members have revealed similar challenges in the transition from supporting feminist organizations and local activists to working with governments, the UN, IDCs (international development corporations), and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). There is a level of difficulty in facing these challenges alone, especially in a highly hierarchical, bureaucratic nature of the philanthropic world. Diane Gillespie of Tostan maintains that “having CUSP collectively identify the common pitfalls of scaling social norms programs has helped us be better advocates for our holistic approach.” Lufuno Muvhango of IMAGE echoes similar sentiments: “CUSP’s unified voice enabled my voice to reach where it was not able to reach alone. It gives me hope that sooner or later it will be listened to and will spark necessary change.”

“You mean you, too, have been asked to shorten preparation and training?” asked one of our members during a discussion.  Such shared discovery created solidarity among us as we explored our efforts to advance women’s rights. Seeing our initiatives, at times, greatly misused and misunderstood has profoundly impacted the communities we work with and the broader field of social norms change.  As a result of these conversations, CUSP has recently published a collection of case studies describing successful and challenging experiences of scale among CUSP members and how scaling this type of programming can be made safer and more impactful for communities.

The commonalities in our case studies speak to our determination for transformative, sustainable social norms change and healthier, safer and happier lives for those in the communities with whom we work. CUSP has reflected considerably upon the difficulty in investing in and measuring social norms change initiatives within the current international development paradigm and project-based results. “The misuse or misinterpretation is inevitable as donors and organizations are constantly being pushed to either come up with ‘new’ approaches and/or show quick results,” suggests Mona Mehta of Oxfam. Ultimately, through innovation or adaptation of existing approaches, we want to see quality, effective initiatives that are accountable to communities.  For Rebecka Lundgren of the Institute for Reproductive Health, this also means embracing the possibility that not all interventions are scalable. Furthermore, she says it means “supporting social movement building and change that is cumulative and incremental and that may not be measurable in conventional terms.”

Collectively, CUSP has considerable knowledge about what works to deliver ethical and effective, gender transformative programming. “Social norms change to prevent gender-based violence and promote gender equality is a long-term endeavor. Short cuts and superficial adaptations of evidence-based programmes are more costly and potentially damaging in the end,” affirms Angelica Pino of Sonke Gender Justice.  To effectively scale up existing approaches donors, policymakers and implementers must work together with communities, women’s organizations and feminist activists, and methodology originators to maintain fidelity to the core principles and structures of methodologies.  This also calls for investing considerable time to internalize values, deconstruct hierarchies, and practice social justice principles individually and within organizations before introducing initiatives to communities.

Ultimately, our experience in CUSP reflects the journey of our programs: it is a collectively measured, thoughtfully considered process of discussion, reflection and contribution– and the journey isn’t over yet. Social norms change is a long-term process. Our programs aim to inspire personal reflection and collective action, both within ourselves and within communities—this is what we are seeking to do through CUSP.

Learn more about the Community for Understanding Scale up and read the new CUSP Case Study Collection here or write to us at

Written by the Community for Understanding Scale Up (CUSP)

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