Innovator Interview with Educate!

April 12, 2016Duncan McCullough

The Global Innovation Fund, supported by DFID-UKUSAID, the Omidyar Network, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia, has committed more than USD $200 million to supporting social innovations that aim to improve the lives and opportunities of those in the developing world.

We were pleased to see that the Global Innovation Fund selected Educate!, a program profiled on CEI, as one of the recipients for its inaugural round of investing. We spoke recently with Loren Crary, Director of External Relations for Educate!, about her organization’s recognition, experience, and advice for other innovations seeking to tap into this growing pool of funding.

CEI: It looks like it has been a busy start to 2016 for Educate!. Thank you for taking the time to speak with CEI, and congratulations on your selection as an initial investment from the Global Innovation Fund!

What advice do you have for other programs in the CEI network who are interested in applying for these types of global competitions and awards, like GIF?

Educate!: Our success has come in large part from having a crystal clear vision, setting the priorities we know we need to achieve it, and then aggressively working to become best in class in those priority areas in order to reach our goals. For example, we knew we wanted to make measurable impact on life outcomes, so we needed excellent Monitoring & Evaluation to reach the standards we had set for ourselves. As a result, we prioritized investment in M&E, learned as much as could from peers, funders, and other advisors, and when there were M&E tools we needed that didn’t exist yet, we created them. We also took risks on M&E – like running our first RCT – when we believed the pay off would be worth it.

We regularly check into our priorities and vision to make sure the goals we set every year, every quarter, and every month are aligned to the long term vision and that we are building the stepping stones to get there. Our amazing partners are able to clearly see our goals and what we are accomplishing every year to achieve them.

Since every organization has its own vision, each path to achieve it will look very different. But as long as you are investing your energy, time, and resources according to your priorities, you can feel confident you are giving yourself the best shot at achieving your vision. You will have a clear message to share, and partners that share your values will be able to recognize your impact and potential.

CEI: One of the areas prioritized by the Global Innovation Fund in its first found of investments was evidence-collection. Can you give a brief overview of Educate!’s approach to monitoring, evaluation and learning?

Educate!: The cornerstone of our approach to M&E and learning is ensuring our solution measurably impacts our Scholars’ life outcomes. Our team has created first-of-their-kind evaluation tools to measure the four key outcomes that we target: Improved Livelihoods; Increased Business & Job Creation; Improved Community Participation; and Improved 21st Century & Business/Employability Skills. 

We monitor more than 20 key performance indicators (KPIs) on a weekly, monthly, trimesterly, or annual basis. Each KPI is tied to one of our outcomes. KPIs are collected using a SMS and smartphone reporting system, KPI metrics populate an internal dashboard that can be reviewed and analyzed in real time. We also survey students immediately before beginning the program, after completing the program, and one and two years out of the program to assess impact. Finally, in 2012 we partnered with Innovations for Poverty Action to design one of the first Randomized Control Trials (RCT) of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa, and this year we are working with a team of researchers under JPAL’s post-primary education fund to run another RCT on our new programs in Rwanda.

Educate! also prioritizes ongoing innovation and learning in our core program model. One of our key learning mechanisms is Build-Measure-Learn (BML) loops, a Lean Startup methodology used widely by startups as well as large and established companies like GE. Through BML loops, we test programmatic and operational components of our model and make rapid adjustments based on the results of each loop.

CEI: What were some of the toughest challenges when first setting up these M&E processes, and how did you work to overcome them?

Educate!: One major challenge was that our goals are all about using education to change life outcomes, but it was difficult to find pre-existing tools aligned to our model and target outcomes, relevant to an East-African youth population. To address that gap, we created the Secondary Skills Assessment Tool (SSAT), which we have integrated into our KPIs. Based on Pratham’s ASER, the SSAT evaluates improvement in 21st century and business/employability skills and is designed for rapid turnaround to provide data on our students each trimester. The SSAT was designed to reflect skills students highlighted as important to their success in over 80 hours of interviews we conducted.

Another challenge that we are focused on right now is finding the most rigorous yet practicable way to continue assessing impact as we scale. This year, we are testing a quasi-experimental design to build a control group against which can compare outcomes for our 2015-2016 class of students.

CEI: Another criteria very important to GIF is scalability. What factors have led to Educate!’s ability to scale so far? What steps have you taken to plan for scale in the future?

Educate!: We are laser-focused on scale, so there is a lot we could talk about here! But high level we’ve been able to scale by following two strategies: scaling our direct intervention on the ground and scaling at the systems level through advising education reform.

In terms of scaling our operations, our ability to scale has largely come from beginning with the end in mind – we design every aspect of our model specifically for scale – and iteratively learning as we grow (e.g. through BML loops).

On the education reform side, learning how to work at the systems level to maximize our impact in the long term has been the most important factor. Through our experience working with government partners in Uganda and Rwanda on curriculum and assessment reform, we have learned how to map the stakeholders in an educational system, what their concerns and pain points are, and where we add the most value in the process. As a result, we have been able to serve as a technical advisor in two reforms in Uganda and one in Rwanda, helping education reformers in government to create the impact they launched a skills-based reform to achieve.

CEI: Now that you have been chosen for this GIF investment, what’s next for Educate!?

Educate!: We are going full steam ahead on our scaling plan. We are working aggressively towards our Vision for 2024: Reaching one million youth annually across 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. We are taking the biggest strides to that goal that we have ever taken in the next couple of years, with our expansion to Rwanda – our second country of operations – and aiming to reach 450 schools annually in Uganda in 2017, which is almost double our 2015 impact.

Educate! operates as a social enterprise in that we are laser-focused on one problem and put all of our efforts into finding the most scalable, sustainable, and cost-effective solution to that problem – in our case, how to transform education in Africa to give youth the skills to solve poverty. Because of that, we don't operate short-term projects or design projects to funder specifications. So we are especially excited about the partnership with GIF: Their venture-style funding model and focus on scale are tightly aligned with our existing plans to work towards our Vision for 2024.

CEI: The other programs selected for this first round of investment are focused on health outcomes. Were there insights you were able to learn from them at the GIF launch event? More broadly, what do you think innovators in education and skills training learn from innovators in other sectors?

Educate!: We learned the most from seeing some interesting tactics around testing short-duration programs. Broadly speaking, the education sector has been learning from the health sector about ways to evaluate, and we can continue that cross-sector learning, especially in terms of evaluating longer term impact, which is less common for education interventions.

CEI: What have you learned about the importance of relationship building through Educate!? Not just for other practitioners in the field, but funders, academics, and policy-makers as well?

Educate!: Because our goal is ultimately to transform education at the national level in multiple countries, relationship building with the full range of stakeholders has to be at the heart of our work. Education reform requires buy-in and participation from every level of the system, from student, to family, to teacher, to headmaster, all the way up to education ministry. There is no path to success for our vision if we go it alone.

We have made enormous investments at every level of our organization in relationship building, from regular internal stakeholder meetings with students, teachers and staff about our model; to working groups with peers about granular operational issues; to connections with funders and funder consortiums that can influence funding trends in the field; to relationships with governments to advise on reforms from the discussion stages through policy writing up to final implementation.

We have benefited enormously from that investment at every stage of our growth from learning from peers who have been at that stage before and from funders and policy-makers who offer a perspective from their distinct point of view. We make a point of “paying it forward” whenever we can, and continually reap the benefits, from advice on scaling, to referrals for recruiting as we grow, to insights from leaders working on another angle of the problem.

Loren Crary is Director of External Relations for Educate!, an innovative provider of youth skills training in leadership, entrepreneurship and workforce readiness in Uganda with plans to expand to Rwanda and other Sub-Saharan Africa nations shortly.

Photo Credit: Educate!

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