Social Enterprises Can Innovate, But Can They Scale?

World of Work March 07, 2016

Most leaders of education agree that if we hope to see universal access to high-quality education in our lifetimes, it will require some serious disruption to existing educational models. Innovation is needed throughout delivery, management and measurement, and it’s needed on a large scale. 

Most innovation starts with a departure from the tried and true. In many ways, rising social enterprises could be seen as the logical leaders in developing new models of learning that incorporate the myriad new tools that technology and data have to offer, along with the improvements in the understanding of childhood development and learning. They are not held back by existing systems and inertia; they are betting on their ability to deliver more produce superior outcomes through a new models or approaches.

While we see clear potential for social enterprises to be leaders in innovation, we also know from our own experiences working in development that the path to scale is paved with great ideas and successful pilots. That infamous “valley of death” that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and pharmaceutical companies talk about exists in the education sector as well; in most cases, it takes more than a good product, a nice business plan, and some seed funding to make it see an innovation scale successfully.  

Even with strong evidence, popular support, and success in other geographies, scale is a challenge. For example, BridgeIT—founded by Nokia, Pearson, and other partners in an effort to use mobile technology to improve education and implemented in 12 countries—generated a range of results. The best results are seen in the Philippines where the program introduced Text2teach, designed to reach underserved state primary schools in the Philippines. The primary intervention was the introduction of high-quality, interactive, mobile phone-based educational materials that supplemented regular teaching lessons, usually in the form of short modules focusing on the most difficult concepts for students to master. Pilot evaluations found strong results that the intervention significantly improved learning outcomes, and that teachers displayed much more positive attitudes toward technology as a teaching tool. Over the past 13 years, Text2Teach has scaled up to reach over 300,000 students in more than 1,100 schools. It is now “mainstreaming” the technology, working in close partnership with the Department of Education and local authorities and aiming to reach 22,000 schools. 

In Tanzania, where in 2007 BridgeIT implemented an adapted version of Text2teach in 150 schools, the program also demonstrated promising results. Evaluations found that participating schools showed significant gains in school attendance and test scores and high level of teacher satisfaction. However, after the pilot ended, this successful initiative had to shut down because of a funding crisis. While local buy-in of Text2Teach was very high among teachers, no one with political power and resources took ownership.

These two cases show that external factors play a huge role in the ultimate impact of innovations. One potential advantage of the social enterprise model is its financial sustainability; in the case of Text2teach, there was dependence on the government or a donor continuing to provide financial resources. But this alone will not always be sufficient to ensure that space to scale.

At the end of the day, getting most successful innovations in education to scale will require government support. This can be passive, simply getting space and permission to experiment and prove that a new model works, or more active, such as providing investments, metrics, access to schools or administrations, or contracts. But without government support, we believe that it is very difficult for innovative or disruptive educational programs to scale, particularly in a space like education that is traditionally considered the state’s responsibility. 

Bridge International Academies, one of the leading demonstrations of affordable private schools for the poor, is learning this the hard way. Now one of the largest chains in East Africa with 400 schools serving low-income urban populations, the company’s scale-up and success are threatened by regulatory challenges. Limited private school regulation in Kenya is now creating obstacles for Bridge students to sit for national exams. Last year, the Ministry of Education mandated that non-­formal schools, including Bridge, had to freeze expansion until new regulations were released. Until schools re-­register under the new regulations (which have yet to be finalized), their students are not eligible to sit for national exams. Understandably, parents are nervous about their children’s academic futures and looking at other options. Without government recognition, Bridge’s long-term success in Kenya is unlikely.  

This is a reality of operating in a developing country context; the ambiguity or lack of certain regulations creates a significant political risk for independent entrepreneurs. In fact, even in 2013 the co-founder of Bridge International Academies, Shannon May, acknowledged these challenges, saying: “You have to be extreme, you have to take real risks to work in those environments. Often there are (laws in place) preventing most companies from trying to figure out how to solve these problems.” 

Which brings us back to a key concern: if we bet exclusively on social enterprises to lead innovation in education, we are ignoring decades of experience that show that political capital, relationships, brand, and savviness around risk are key drivers of the ability to have impact at scale. Most entrepreneurs cannot do that alone, and it represents a skill set that many non-profit organizations have perfected over time.

Larger organizations may be less nimble, but when they develop an innovative model, scale comes naturally. Bangladesh-based BRAC, one of the largest development organizations in the world, runs a chain of 7,000 independent pre-primary and primary fee-based schools named Shishu Niketon for under-privileged children. It brings the experience of developing and implementing an extremely frugal but effective primary curriculum that’s serving close to 700,000 students in its grant-funded, free schools nationally. The existing government relationships, participation in policy discussions, and local relationships with community leaders create a strong platform to launch a low-cost school model. 

Without a doubt, education urgently needs disruptive innovations delivered at scale. Social enterprises are an important contributor, but with the right motivations and internal structures for innovation, large social sector organizations can also produce exciting breakthroughs. But we need to emphasize the support required to move from pilot to scale. To tackle the range of challenges, this often requires partnerships and collaboration. Established non-profit organizations and governments will also be part of the success story, or we’re unlikely to have success stories to tell. 

Views expressed are personal.