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Innovation Requires Iteration: The Rising Schools Program and the Road to Social Impact

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June 2014
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In their recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The Re-Emerging Art of Funding Innovation,” Gabriel Kasper and Justin Marcoux provide a thoughtful analysis of the exponential social impact made possible by philanthropists who are willing to take risk and incubate innovative programs through their grantmaking.

The IDP Foundation, Inc. (IDPF) strives to do just that by leveraging its flexibility as a private family foundation to take risks, in hopes of proving a concept that will foster a pivotal shift in the global community’s approach to education. The success of the Rising Schools Program motivates IDPF to continue taking risk in return for big reward.


In 2008, Irene D. Pritzker, President of the IDP Foundation heard a very compelling speech by Professor James Tooley, the foremost researcher on low-cost private schools and author of The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. Professor Tooley spoke of the widespread emergence of private schools serving the poor which are established in response to the market demand from communities frustrated with the poor quality or lack of reach by government schools.

Despite these schools being defined by poor infrastructure and largely untrained teachers, parents choose to pay small fees for their children to attend low-fee private schools, due to the better accountability and time on task that they offer. Despite their need, Professor Tooley discussed how this sector was ignored by governments and funders. Irene was inspired to find a solution to empower these schools to continue, and improve their important work of educating the world’s underserved children.


Given Irene’s determination to find a sustainable solution to help these schools, she turned to the existing innovation of microfinance. However, she quickly discovered that banks determined the low-cost private school sector too risky, and were not willing to provide access to credit to low-cost private schools. Rather than give up on her idea, she decided it was time to innovate. Recognizing that innovation does not require developing an entirely new idea, but oftentimes making an incremental change, Irene decided to figure out how to extend capital to the low-cost private school sector.

In partnership with Sinapi Aba Trust (SAT), a Ghanaian microfinance organization, the IDP Foundation determined that with intensive training in financial literacy and school management, low-cost private schools would be able to take and repay microfinance loans. After developing training and targeted loan products, the Rising Schools Program was born, and began strengthening the low-cost private school sector through inclusion in capacity-building and financial services, to increase access to education in Ghana.


As Gabriel Kasper and Justin Marcoux detail, funders introducing innovation into their work “seek out ideas with transformative potential, take risks on less proven approaches, open themselves up to exploring new solutions, and recognize that innovation requires flexibility, iteration, and failure.”

Understanding that testing a new concept requires flexibility and testing along the way, the Rising Schools Program was piloted in three stages. In this manner, IDPF and SAT were able to determine:
• the ideal number of training modules
• interest rate on loans
• the amount of mentoring required
• how to refine the training content
• the best way to integrate the program into the normal operations of SAT.

By allowing for iteration, IDPF and SAT now feel confident that the program is ready to scale in Ghana. The Rising Schools Program is actively expanding its reach to a total of 580 schools and 150,000 pupils by July 2016.

The IDP Foundation and Sinapi Aba Trust will continue to collect feedback from school owners to make adjustments along the way, and ensure the Rising Schools Program continues to create the greatest social impact possible.

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