If you think of a social-change effort as a fraction, the denominator represents the size of a given social need, while the numerator exemplifies what a given organization is currently accomplishing to reduce that need.
For example, Kaivalya Education Foundation’s denominator is 700,000—all the government primary schools that arc across India and could potentially do far more to enhance children’s education. The nonprofit’s numerator is 1,200—the number of primary schools the organization is currently impacting through its leadership training workshops for principals. Social innovators like Kaivalya exhibit a “denominator mindset”: dissatisfied with incremental progress, they put much of their focus on the all-encompassing need, while remaining flexible in confronting it. This mind-set is especially common among Indian nonprofits that excel at extending their reach to a broad population of constituents.
In a country where more than 280 million people are illiterate, more than 25 million children suffer from acute malnutrition, and 750 million people lack access to basic sanitation, denominator thinkers go for maximum progress, not perfection. They believe that untangling even one part of a large, knotty problem creates more social value than honing a brilliant solution that serves fewer constituents. And if a growth strategy has run its course, they’re quick to seek a new one that better suits their needs. That is why Kaivalya’s founder, Aditya Natraj, has widened the organization’s scope, from school principals to district administrators. His theory: If Kaivalya can bolster the leadership skills of administrators over the next five years, the organization’s reach will increase by ten-fold. And yet, even that result won’t suffice. “Compared to the need ... 10,000 schools is ultimately irrelevant,” says Natraj. “What’s relevant is all 700,000 schools.”
One such denominator thinker is Madhav Chavan. Formerly a chemistry professor, Chavan, along with co-founder Farida Lambay, launched Pratham Education Foundation with the audacious goal of vanquishing illiteracy in India.
With a focus on early childhood education, Pratham emerged in 1994, when it created pre-school classes for children in Mumbai’s marginalized communities. Over the past two decades, the nonprofit has dramatically expanded its approach. After encountering many children who lagged behind academically and were in danger of dropping out, Pratham created “bridge classes” to bring them up to at least a minimum learning level. In 2000, Pratham attacked one of illiteracy’s root causes—child labor—through outreach programs that eventually gave rise to the Pratham Council for Vulnerable Children, which works to advance children’s rights. And in 2007, Prathan launched Read India, which intensively engages children in reading-related activities that expose them to text, words, and the alphabet. A 2016 Brookings Institution case study found that the approach resulted in a 51 percent increase in reading “among children (grades 3-5) of at least grade-2 texts.” Total cost: about $10 to $15 per child.
From 2014 to 2015, Pratham’s programs directly reached nearly 425,000 students and indirectly impacted more than 6 million through state and district government partnerships. Along the way, even as Pratham pursued different growth strategies, it became a strong influencer in India’s policymaking, in part because of its flexible way of working.
One example was when Pratham, working under intense deadline pressure, figured out on the fly how to conduct the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), a nationwide survey that helps track children’s ability to read simple text and do basic arithmetic. Pratham had already devised a simple tool to assess children’s reading progress using a common metric, and thereby determine whether the organization was achieving its goals. In September 2005, the Indian government asked Pratham to use its literacy assessment tool and a similar arithmetic assessment to survey students across the country. That meant deploying more than 20,000 volunteers, across more than 9,500 villages, to gather data on the demographics of school-age children, school enrollment, and students’ proficiency in basic reading and math—all within three months. ASER was to be the largest, citizen-conducted household survey of children in India—an opportunity that could take Pratham to the national stage. One problem: Chavan didn't know how to achieve it.
He took up the challenge by using all of his available resources. "We had a presence in 150 districts, and within each district, we had 10 to 15 volunteers,” Chavan recalls. “We asked ourselves, ‘Can we put our teams completely on this task so that we can reach five times as many districts as we do now?’” The resulting report affirmed that existential question, as Pratham’s army of volunteers covered 485 districts and 84 percent of rural India in less than 100 days. Almost every year since, Pratham has produced the ASER survey, the primary source for assessing the state of education in India.
With the ongoing goal of extending its impact across all of India, Pratham has repeatedly changed its operating model as it grows. When Pratham was unable to sustain the scale of its operations as a service-delivery organization, it focused on training government teachers, developing curriculum, and pedagogy. In doing so, it has become a partner in shaping and conducting government policies.
Based on Pratham’s findings in the 2012 ASER, India’s Planning Commission shifted its focus to achieving targeted, independently reported learning outcomes. As a result, government departments such as the Ministry of Human Resource Development use ASER to annually track progress in the country. Pratham has also worked with Bihar and Maharashtra states on specific projects aimed at improving the quality of education in government schools.
Another exemplar of the denominator mind-set is the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), which works with 8,845 village institutions in 31 districts across 8 Indian states. FES assists village communities in conserving more than 2.6 million acres of common lands, which sustain farming and other rural livelihoods by arresting soil erosion, recharging ground water, and providing habitat for myriad species.
Jagdeesh Rao Puppala, FES’s first employee and now CEO, explains the denominator mind-set this way: "We might be able to reach today about 45 or 50 districts, but there are 600 other districts in the country. So how do we influence them?"
FES started out as a cooperative to help villagers take on the enormous task of restoring neglected “wastelands”—a colonial legacy characterizing forested and other lands where nothing was cultivated—and use them for fodder, water, timber, medicines, and other rural needs. Since then, FES has undergone significant changes. Seeking to extend its reach, the organization has broadened the scope of its work to include ensuring that the ecological integrity of entire landscapes, as well as the health of all the human and ecological communities within those landscapes, remains intact.
“Sometime around 1997, we realized that cooperatives are beautiful,” says Puppala. “But if you want to address [a problem] at scale, you have to have an outward-looking structure that embraces a diversity of institutional options rather than cooperatives alone."
FES overcame a near-death experience when foreign funding began to dry up in 2005. Instead of cutting back, the nonprofit reacted to the fall-off by stretching its funding goals. FES quickly moved to enlarge its funding base by expanding its number of Indian donors. To ensure that donors’ demands didn’t distract field teams from their day-to-day work, FES didn’t disclose funding sources to its teams. Simultaneously, it channeled funding to villages that best mapped to donors’ specific interests.
"The big question was whether it is more beautiful to stick to working with only 500 villages, going deeper and deeper, or do 30 percent of what we are doing in 500 villages—our core model—at a scale of 10,000 villages,” says Puppala. “We chose 30 percent in 10,000 villages.”
Puppala’s logic pushed FES to expand its range of activities beyond land access for the poor to improving diverse landscapes, ranging from grasslands to large water bodies, as well as strengthening local self-governance institutions, supporting collective decision-making, and enhancing livelihoods.
Denominator thinkers like Chavan and Puppala think big. But they all also think realistically. Pressure-testing ideas in advance, they seek a balance between audacity and excessive risk, which might threaten the support they now provide to people in need.