Last week The Young Foundation published a report on the first wave of the Young Academy; an incubator programme supporting ‘start-up’ social enterprises that aim to reduce inequality in the education system. My organisation—New Philanthropy Capital (NPC)—has been privileged to be involved with the Young Academy from the beginning. Our role has been to act as an ‘evidence partner’ for those in the Academy; helping them to think about the evidence they need to support their growth. The report highlights the variety of different projects supported, and for us it has been tremendously rewarding to meet the different entrepreneurs, to engage with their ideas, and their passion for helping young people. Along the way we have also learned about the best way to support organisations that are starting out.
All the entrepreneurs we worked with were very committed to their idea, but were at different stages; some only had a concept of what they wanted to do, while others were already delivering services. Regardless of where they were at, we always found it valuable to a step back; to encourage them to think about which aspect of inequality they wanted to address, and how their idea would do this. We call this process developing a ‘theory of change’. If you are familiar with NPC you will know that we talk about this an awful lot. Essentially, we believe you cannot evaluate something until you have a clear blueprint for what it is. This is what the theory of change provides.
Doing a theory of change can sometimes become a bit of a box-ticking exercise, but what we found in our work with the Young Academy, was that it often came into its own. We challenged people to really think about how they wanted their intervention to work in practice. To ask questions such as what exactly their service users would learn, think or do differently, that then might go on to reduce inequality? For some entrepreneurs, this process prompted a change in direction, for others it just helped them to better articulate their aims to potential customers and understand what they needed to measure.
However, one of the main barriers to success for start-ups in the education system is getting access to schools and young people to test their ideas. This means that when the opportunities to do so do arise, start-ups must make sure they capitalise on the opportunity for learning. We supported the entrepreneurs who reached this stage to develop the right approach to getting feedback from young people and teachers. The best methods are very short questionnaires for all service users, combined with longer interviews of smaller samples of people. This gives you the right balance between numbers and stories.
At the early stages, rather than measuring potential impact, what’s most valuable is for the ventures to learn more about the experience itself— is the service itself interesting, useful, enjoyable? Start-ups that are able to effectively negotiate these early stages will then eventually face the question of whether their idea is actually achieving its social goals, and helping to reduce inequality. This is always difficult, but those working in the school system might have the opportunity of tapping into the data that schools collect about pupil progress to explore whether they are having a positive impact. Indeed, one of the Young Academy graduates—Edukit—has developed a system to do just this. Those outside the school system will have to work harder because there is less data available, and might find that best is to start small; collect data from samples of young people or conduct qualitative research.
But we found, through the Young Academy, that not all social entrepreneurs are concerned about social impact. Those with a good commercial business model might feel happy that they are potentially reducing inequality, without feeling the need to test this. Where social impact mattered most was when the business model depended on engaging socially minded funders, schools or commissioning from central or local Government. So, while we did not work with all the entrepreneurs to the same extent, in the end 80% agreed that we had helped them ‘understand how to test their social impact’. This is encouraging feedback, and evidence of impact, both for our own enterprise as well as for the Academy as a whole.
If you are interested in reading more about how education start-ups can approach data and evidence, this report outlines our experience in more detail.