Transformational change can be achieved from within the system.
Given the enormity of India’s challenges, the most successful non-profit organisations are ones that have found pathways to systemic change. These pathways have come either from finding market-based solutions or by engaging with the government. The idea of working with the government to deliver solutions at scale is a holy grail in the world of non-profit organisations. Yet, there is no playbook by which non-profit organisations can crack this code.
The education sector holds interesting examples of non-profit organisations that have worked in transformational ways to drive change within the system. Below given are categorises in these approaches:
Holding the government accountable
Since Independence, the government has spent extensive resources on ensuring access to education. This investment has resulted in near universal enrolment in primary school. After addressing access, the focus of the system have to shift towards improving the quality of education received by students. Non-profit organisations have played a significant role in ensuring that this shift takes place within the government.
Pratham, one of India’s largest non-profit organisation in the education space, had been working at scale, preparing children to learn in the formal school environment. In 2008, they launched the ASER survey as a means of measuring whether children were learning. This household-based learning assessment has since become the standard by which the progress (or lack thereof) of the education system is measured. Media, policy makers and civil society pay attention to these results.
Creating innovation for cost-effective service delivery
Free of bureaucracy and institutional inertia, non-profit organisations can be nimble and innovative in demonstrating cost-effective ways to deliver services. Organisations such as Gyan Shala in Gujarat emerged as key innovators in delivering high-quality, low-cost education in alternative settings to government-run schools.
Unlike private low-cost schools, there was an explicit focus on innovation and working closely with the state to create pathways for adoption by the government system. After demonstrating success with its models, Gyan Shala garnered government funding that enabled it to expand significantly.
More recently, a public-private partnership (PPP) model is emerging as an institutional method to harness innovations. While the aided school model has been a form of PPPs for decades, municipalities like the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai and the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) have recently experimented with whole school adoption as a means of providing high quality education and boosting enrolment in government schools. In both these municipalities, the government has asked non-profit organisations to operate schools with low enrolment and given them the operational flexibility and control to innovate. Non-profit organisations do not charge fees and operate these schools at a cost similar to the government’s per-child expenditure.
Akanksha, a Mumbai-based non-profit organisation, operates 21 schools across Mumbai and Pune. Students in their schools consistently outperform the average municipal school learning outcomes. Non-profit organisations considering this model, however, require a certain amount of operational funding to manage these schools. These funds are required mainly because municipalities fail to reimburse these schools on time.
Identifying solutions for gaps in policy approaches
Non-profit organisations can identify gaps in policy approaches and help create solutions to address these. When we founded Central Square Foundation (CSF) in 2012, one of the challenges we faced was a paucity of insightful data about the education system. For instance, there was no way of capturing or analysing data on the 18,000-plus teacher education institutions that operate across the country. Given the poor quality of teacher’s performance, this was a major impediment to the government’s ability to identify methods to improve the system.
CSF-developed data portal, Prashikshak, was adopted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. It took us nearly two years to develop, create, test a prototype, and then work with the ministry for its roll out. Today, the system—requires educational institutes for teachers to disclose information about their resources and performance—serves as the primary data mechanism on the state of educational institutes for teachers in India.
The author is the co-founder of Global School Leaders, a non-profit organisation.