Steps to Building Education Solutions in India that Will Endure
How do you move from a pilot that changes the lives of a few to a large-scale, sustainable model that can transform the lives of hundreds and thousands? Can you simply make grants or must you build models that can sustain themselves and scale well beyond the scope of your philanthropic contributions?
The immense scale in India directs us to drive sustainability and scale in one of two ways: Either integrate with and help transform government systems, or leverage the power of the free market to create far-reaching change.
The story of our partnership with the Naandi Foundation exemplifies both. While the innovative multi-grade, multi-level instruction successfully piloted by Naandi was adopted in the School Excellence Program (SEP) in the municipal schools of Mumbai, the innovation also gave birth to a social enterprise, NEST, that is setting up a chain of academic coaching centers to serve the low-income communities.
How Can We Extend Beyond Traditional Education Reform Efforts?
Supported by a series of grants over eight years, the Naandi Foundation set out to build a remedial afterschool program that could measurably improve student academic results by overcoming multi-year learning gaps. Using the discipline of regular third-party assessments to drive continuous improvement, the project team then sought out education experts to help strengthen each element of the program. Over time, student results became consistently strong, in many cases delivering greater than 20 percentage-point academic improvements.
By helping to solve the problem of overcrowded classrooms and helping teachers to overcome preparation and bandwidth challenges, and by giving students more control over their own learning, the program proved to be transformative. People began to take notice. In 2012, the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai chose Naandi to be a key partner in their Mumbai School Excellence Program, an ambitious effort to transform primary schools across the city.
Beyond traditional education reform efforts, there was also a clear demand from parents for innovative instruction models that could accelerate their children’s academic results. Naandi’s program did exactly that, and so they began to set up academic centers in low-income neighborhoods to pilot the idea of affordable fee-based academic coaching to students. Parents were already paying for lower quality tutorial options, and the Naandi program met a clear need for higher quality products. Parents began enrolling their children in Naandi’s fee-based program, but they wanted a product tailored to meet their specific needs. That market feedback allowed Naandi to further refine its product, and extend it to thousands of children through a market-based enterprise that could attract capital and talent. This is the power of the free market—paying customers who demand the right product at the right price.
In order to better meet the needs of their new customers, Naandi found that they had to make a significant shift in their operating philosophy from one focused on helping beneficiaries to one serving customers. And so, NEST was born.
Attracting the Right Talent, Skills and Capital
As a start-up company, NEST needed strategic and business planning, recruitment and development of talent, marketing and sales, quality, customer service, finance, operations, and a host of other critical functions to build a strong organization. A strong management team was hired, and the NEST board was formed with a diverse set of talent and expertise to guide the start-up.
The foundation provided early-stage capital to support NEST in becoming a pioneer in providing the urban poor with high-quality academic support at scale.
Market shifts need patient capital, whether as grants over an extended period to support breakthrough innovation or as seed funding from impact investors to incubate enterprises. In order to reach more and more families, to fit the different opportunities and to enable creative extension of scale and sustainability, the foundation had to evolve the way we thought about and structured our support.
Understand the Nature of Market Shifts and Continue to Innovate
The impact of disruptive innovations is felt as much at the bottom of the pyramid as it is in high-visibility consumer and technology products. Governments, not-for-profits and for-profits are all trying to develop solutions to break the cycle of poor outcomes in education, particularly among the underprivileged. These efforts are creating new opportunities and changing the traditional roles of different stakeholders.
Naandi’s large-scale, after-school remedial program in government schools in Hyderabad and Mumbai opened the doors to a unique public-private partnership (PPP) between private service providers and the Mumbai Municipal Corporation to collaborate in transforming all the municipal primary schools in the city. This bold and progressive move by the Mumbai Municipal Corporation has now triggered similar efforts in other states and cities, thus reshaping the education landscape in India.
In parallel, India is experiencing a shift in the behavior of parents, most noticeably among the urban poor, who are demanding quality education and are willing to pay for it. NEST has positioned itself in this market to provide parents with a choice of quality at an affordable price—and to do it in a way in which families’ access to quality programs is unconstrained by limited government budgets or philanthropic dollars.
In education, the combination of newer and better learning solutions, and the fast-evolving expectations of students and their parents requires constant innovation. To take that innovation to sustainable scale, we should all be creative about the intersection of social services and the marketplace, and be willing to extend our definition of patient capital to enable effective new models.