Successful strategies for impact at scale

By Maharshi Vaishnav and Alison Bukhari

Strategy 1.0 Building for growth

How did we get to over 25,000 schools across 15 districts of India in 10 years? And how do we plan to get to 31 districts in the next five?

Educate Girls was founded on the premise that we were looking for a solution to the problem of gender inequality throughout India’s education system, rather than seeking a better education for a few. When Safeena Husain, our founder and executive director, returned to India from working in development in other parts of the world, she knew that she wanted to design for scale. From day one, she envisioned success as getting every girl in school — and making sure they were all learning. 

Delivering our first strategy enabled us to identify some critical factors that enabled growth over our first 10 years — intentionality, evidence, codification, focus, staff values and the type of funding we have attracted.

Growth was intentional. Each stage of our organizational development was planned for and deliberate, as we grew from a 50-school pilot to 500, to close to 2,000 across a single district and then rapidly from 5,000 up to our current 25,000 schools in 2018. At every stage, there was intent and design for the growth of the outreach as well as the supporting organization. For example, as the organization grew, at each stage, careful consideration was given to how our staff were hired, inducted, managed and rewarded. With pro bono expert advice from a talent management firm, we were able to put improved systems and processes in place to nurture and retain staff.

The Educate Girls model has been built upon extensive experimentation, testing and eventual codification. From how to incentivize village volunteers (answer: financial remuneration doesn’t always work), to how to build accountability without an office (answer: geo tagging and a mobile app), we have consistently tried and tested models before final implementation. Decisions as critical as these have been made through action research and building evidence. We opened ourselves up to a randomized controlled trial at quite an early stage in our growth, a demonstration of our commitment to scaling what works.

Even as we grew rapidly, we maintained our focus. We have often turned down requests to diversify our community interventions. But, rather than dilute our impact by trying to tackle multiple social issues, Educate Girls has always had a razor-sharp focus on three key outcomes — enrollment of out-of-school girls, retention of enrolled girls and learning outcomes for children. We have been asked to distribute solar lanterns, agri products, and show movies. But we have grown to know our limitations and understand what we need to do in order to achieve our goals.

When working to advance gender equality, it is critical that all our staff mirror our values. Our recruitment drives and recruitment camps enable us to cast a wide net and identify a workforce with a true commitment to the empowerment of girls and who are prepared to work in an environment where they are challenging norms each day. With our Team Balika volunteers and field coordinators working very close to their own communities, one slip of the tongue or one mistaken action can have a lasting impact on the village’s opinion and trust in our mission. Every team member must embody what we stand for. It is important that our entire staff — from management to those in the field — be mission driven.

Stepping out of the community and thinking about the other type of resourcing, one critical enabler of our scale has been the presence of an anchor funder. Since 2012, Educate A Child has been one such anchor funder, and our outcomes-focused, match-funding partnership has been the foundation of our ability to raise the money we have needed to build the organization we are today.

But it is not just the anchor funding that has been critical. A number of our longer-term funding partners have given us multi-year, flexible, and unrestricted funding commitments.  A firm commitment to building organizational capacities, institutionalizing systems and processes, robust monitoring and evaluation and a level of transparency in our partnerships with donors has led to a trust building between us and more of our funding coming to us as unrestricted.

Beyond funding, we have also had a number of critical corporate partnerships that have contributed to our talent management, our strategy development, our use of technology and a number of other important organizational development projects. In these ways, we have leveraged the private sector to build a robust organisation.

Strategy 2.0 Expansion

In April of this year we launched the strategy, in consultation with Strategy&, for our next five years — tripling our outreach in half the time — 16 million children by 2024 and including programs that support adolescent girls’ transition to higher grades. This is ambitious, but we feel it is achievable if we follow the principles of our first decade outlined above, while also adding the presence of improved technology and new partnership approaches.

We will refine our model by adding machine learning; we hope to create predictive capabilities for identifying where the majority of out-of-school girls reside. Doing so will permit us to spend less on expensive door-to-door surveys of wider geographies. For example, when we recently analyzed our survey of over 3 million households, we discovered that 50 percent of the out of school girls lived in just 10 percent of the villages. We hope to create predictive capability for not just vulnerability to access but also for the vulnerability to the worst performing schools in terms of learning.

A key challenge when growing a program is identifying a delivery agent. There is only so far that an organization can grow and our next strategy will involve experimenting with new partnerships — with both larger agencies and smaller community groups — in order to pass on our strategies through technical advice and training. This is envisaged in order to expedite scale-up and impact to a much larger number of children (faster than standalone organic expansion), while building an improved ecosystem and thereby bring in wider systems change.

As we enter into our next decade, we also desire to deepen our impact by working with girls into adolescence with a new program looking at the transition into secondary education.

Lastly, strong results of a recent three-year Development Impact Bond should give confidence to the funder community that while we have our scale-up plans in place, that there will be no compromise in quality nor value for money as we grow, and that we have the knowledge and ambition to tackle the learning crisis, while leaving no girl behind. The results, which were just announced, can be read here.

In the next blog in the Educate Girls Series, we will hear about the results of Educate Girls’ Development Impact Bond, a proof of concept contract that the organization worked on in partnership with UBS Optimus Foundation and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation for the last three years.

Photo © Skoll Foundation

~ Maharshi Vaishnav