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“The fact that in most parts of India a goat is seen as an asset and a girl is seen as a liability is infuriating.” —Safeena Husain

Safeena Husain is the founder of Educate Girls (EG), a nonprofit focused on improving educational opportunities for girls who live in the Indian state of Rajasthan. In Rajasthan, only 44 percent of women are literate, whereas 76 percent of men are. The state also has a high rate of child marriage: 15 percent of girls there get married before they are 10 years old, and 68 percent get married before they are 18.

EG helps girls enroll or reenroll in government-run primary schools and also works with administrators and teachers to strengthen the quality of the education the girls receive. Begun in 2005 with a pilot program in 50 schools, EG has grown rapidly; today, it has a presence in 8,500 schools. Over the past ten years EG has helped more than 80,000 girls who had dropped out return to school. Its efforts have increased the attendance of girls and boys in schools by 25 percent and improved 390,000 students’ learning outcomes by 35 to 65 percent.

Husain attributes the organization’s growth and success to rigorous, ongoing impact assessment, in particular to a framework with four iterative stages: Blueprint, Validate, Prepare, and Scale. This article offers a look at each of those stages.

Stage One: Blueprint

Educate Girls has helped more than 80,000 girls who had dropped out return to school. (Photo courtesy of Educate Girls) 

“I started with a broad statement of purpose: to provide opportunities for girls and women to achieve their full potential. But very soon I realized I would have to dig deeper. What exactly was I trying to achieve? What path do we choose to reach our goal? Basically, what is our theory of change?” —Safeena Husain

During the Blueprint stage, EG’s journey began with a pilot program in 50 of the poorest-performing government schools in Rajasthan’s Pali district. Initially its mission was wide ranging. It included sending girls to school, preventing them from getting married early, ensuring that they were physically healthy, and making them economically independent. But Husain and her colleagues soon determined that honing their focus would enable them to make a bigger difference in the long run, and so they decided to concentrate on ensuring that marginalized girls receive good-quality primary education.

That more tightly defined mission helped EG’s leaders develop success indicators and identify the scope of its accountability early on. For example, activity-based indicators, such as the number of girls enrolled and number of schools with improved infrastructure, would serve as baseline data. These were intentionally simple and easy to document, and they could be used to track progress over time.Though basic, these measures proved useful in demonstrating the efficacy of the model to the state government, which then supported EG for a larger-scale pilot involving 500 schools across Pali.

Stage Two: Validate

“We always knew that partnering with the government would be crucial to our model. Being able to do that was a significant step forward for us. By 2008, we knew we were on the right track because girls were coming back to school. But were we making a real difference? What aspects of our model were working? [It is] important to know that the work you are doing is making a difference. Because if it is not, there is no point in scaling it.” —Safeena Husain

For EG to gain the necessary insights at the Validate stage, its field staff needed to view data as more than just a set of numbers to be collected. And so they made reflection on the data a regular part of progress review meetings. Not only would staff members analyze data and identify issues, they would also suggest corrective steps.

Educate Girls’ new goal is to reach almost 4 million children in 30,000 schools by 2018. (Photo courtesy of Educate Girls)  

For example, data showed that despite the success of large community mobilization drives that boosted enrollment in the short term, the number of girls who stayed in school until the end of the academic year remained low. In response, EG introduced new learning techniques and ensured installation of girl-friendly infrastructure, such as separate toilets and walls around the playground. Once the data demonstrated that those changes worked, EG formally incorporated them into its model.

As EG’s work expanded, the program added more outcomelevel indicators to the data it was monitoring, such as the number of girls who stayed in school and the amount of improvement in learning levels. EG moved from paper-based data collection to a simple Microsoft Excel-based information management system. Husain and her team also eliminated metrics that were not essential to decision making.

Being willing to analyze and act on its findings at regular intervals helped EG learn and react quickly, keeping the cost of change low. As the organization refined its model, it was able to convince larger institutional funders, such as LGT Venture Philanthropy and Dasra, to provide support. Increasingly convinced of the credibility and scalability of EG’s model, the government again asked EG to expand its work—this time to 3,100 schools in two districts.

Stage Three: Prepare

“We were clear that we wanted to build a strong model that was creating real impact on girls’ lives. By 2012, seven years since we began EG, we were convinced that we had. The question now was, did others believe it too?” —Safeena Husain

During the Prepare stage, EG chose to put its program through an external impact evaluation. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) can be expensive, but Rebecca Thornton, a professor at the University of Michigan (identified through EG’s network of contacts) agreed to design an RCT pro bono. The data analysis at the end of two years showed that EG’s activities were significantly improving girls’ enrollment, retention, and learning outcomes. This stamp of approval gave EG the confidence it needed to plan and fundraise for scaling up to new districts.

Educate Girls works closely with parents to help Indian girls excel in school. (Photo courtesy of Educate Girls)  

Soon, though, it became clear that program staff could not simultaneously collect and analyze data, and manage programs and operations. So EG restructured measurement as a distinct function, and built a monitoring and evaluation team focused on analysis and reporting, while the program team continued to collect field data.

As EG expanded to a third district and the burden of data collection on field staff increased, Husain and her team also decided to transfer some data collection and measurement activities to the girls and communities that benefited from the program, thereby reducing staff workload and simultaneously improving the engagement and ownership levels of the communities it served.

By the end of 2013, EG was working with about 5,500 schools in three districts. Having demonstrated its strong culture of continuous improvement and impact on the ground, EG attracted grants from organizations such as the World Bank’s India Development Marketplace and the British Asian Trust.

Stage Four: Scale

“What you can see with your eyes when you are working in one school, you cannot when you have grown to a couple of thousand schools. How do we know what is happening on the ground? And how do we build an organization structure and systems that support the organization’s continuous growth and scaling ambitions? We cannot be satisfied with reaching only a fraction of the eligible 3.7 million still out-of-school girls in the state.” —Safeena Husain

By the end of 2014 EG had entered the Scale stage. It was working in more than 8,500 schools and with more than 1 million children in six districts. To manage the organization it needed a more sophisticated system of monitoring. Still relying on its Excel-based data collection system, managers were struggling with poor access to real-time data, limited visibility into staff and school performance, and delays in data analysis.

To overcome these challenges, EG turned to mobile technology. The transition was not entirely smooth. As Husain says, “If you cannot feed data back to the frontline users, it is hard to get the data entered in the first place.” As the mobile tool evolved, however, the process improved. Managers could see school-level indicators in real time and correct course promptly. Data from the phones are also aggregated and analyzed by the monitoring and evaluation team in a monthly dashboard shared with EG’s leadership, to track performance against set targets at the school, village, and district levels.

New Goal

“From a few hundred dollars to almost 5 percent of our annual budget, our investment in impact assessment has gone up considerably. But had we not adopted such a rigorous process, we wouldn’t have gained support from large institutional partners to continuously push the boundaries of scale.” —Safeena Husain

EG’s next goal is to reach almost 4 million children in 30,000 schools by 2018. To help meet that goal, EG received a development impact bond with the UBS Optimus Foundation as the private investor, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation as the outcome payer, and Instiglio as the project manager coordinating the stakeholders. Under the terms of the bond, EG will be paid only if it achieves the desired impact, measured against some stringent parameters. Because of its attention to impact assessment, Husain is confident that the organization is up for the challenge.