Today, with upheaval in both politics and government, the ecosystem of most social sector systems has become more restrictive and risk averse. In this environment, many organizations are more concerned with safeguarding their existing channels for accessing resources and delivering services, rather than innovating and expanding. At the same time, pressures inside and outside the system are driving toward change. Established players are transferring their entrepreneurial energy from delivering programs to shifting the goals and ways of operating of the systems within which they sit. And newer actors are focusing on transforming systems right out of the starting gate.
Conventional thinking tends to discount the possibility that new, small organizations have something to offer in partnership with established, larger organizations. Indeed, their models, evaluation frameworks, and funding strategies look very different. But recently, we have seen that early-stage organizations have an important role to play in systems change—that is to say, change to the interconnected elements such policies, program standards, regulations, and governance that define what a system actually produces. Smaller groups are free from the ingrained expectations of stakeholders, beneficiaries, and funders. They aren’t burdened with workforces that deliver programs or services, and thus aren’t vested in an organization focusing on those activities. These groups can be catalytic, lighting a spark in a larger organization or bureaucracy that can otherwise be hard to ignite.
Small but mighty
In November, we participated in a Hybrid Colleges Summit, a small convening of innovative K-12, nonprofit, and higher-education leaders organized by New Profit. This lead us to an important insight: Many social sector pilots need subsidies and risk capital to succeed. But in the hybrid college space—outcomes-driven, higher-education programs that are affordable, designed around student needs, and offer intensive, data-driven student supports—a number of small-scale pilots are aiming directly at established systems in higher education without first requiring this early-stage transitional phase. In fact, they are sustainable nearly from the beginning.
Some of these—Patten University’s Honors Pathway program, Match Beyond, PelotonU, and Da Vinci Extension, to name a few—tap into existing federal K-12 funding or post-secondary funding streams like Pell Grants. To reach students, they partner with existing education provider distribution systems, including high schools and online programs like Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America initiative.
Such a scenario, which pairs inside and outside forces, and established and emerging organizations, can create real pressure for systems change.
The field of K-12 education has been static for decades, but a wave of emerging organizations are beginning to change how things are done here as well. For example, during her maternity leave, former classroom teacher Maya Gat tackled a problem that had reduced her effectiveness: She lacked the insights and guidance she needed to personalize instruction for her students. The organization she founded to solve this problem, Branching Minds, developed a web platform that works to streamline, scaffold, and improve system-level, school-wide intervention practice.
The Branching Minds team creates bridges between special education and general education reform, proposing systems solutions that assume learner variability is the norm rather than the exception. The group has brought new energy to a stale conversation about “tiered support,” a data-driven problem-solving framework to understand and respond to academic and behavior needs of individual students. They address two central topics in the current wave of education reform: personalized learning and improving efficacy in education practice. The team has an ambitious vision to use data and modeling to assess interventions and make better recommendations. In the process, they challenge funders and practitioners to ensure that the more than $13 billion dollars spent annually on education technology is invested in interventions with proven success.
Finally, the Branching Minds team is leveraging its status as a B Corp, or philanthropic for-profit, to bring together foundation, venture capital, and education technology funders. Convening these players makes it possible to identify where standards and assessment criteria may conflict, and may prevent the best solutions from rising to the top. Branching Minds showed 228 percent year-over-year growth in revenues between 2015 and 2017, and the company’s web-based platform has served more than 65,000 students.
What’s the message? Funders who care about systems change should look from the outside in, and shouldn’t discount the potential and influence of early-stage organizations. Today, disruptive innovation is bubbling up, rather than trickling down. We must figure out how to encourage new partnerships with established players and other partners, as well as new funding streams, to help them flourish.