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What determines whether educational innovations conceived on the ground ultimately result in better learning outcomes for students, and how can we take the most successful innovations to scale? A recent evaluation of part of our Quality Education in Developing Countries Initiative suggests some answers. In 2011, we awarded two grants to support grassroots innovations in improving children’s learning. These grants were given to two intermediaries, who used our funds to support organizations working to improve children’s early learning and highlight their approaches. The assumption behind the grants was that other donors and national Ministries of Education might invest in and expand promising approaches, if only they were aware of them and had proof that they worked. The intermediaries, Firelight Foundation and TrustAfrica, took two different approaches:

Firelight Foundation chose to make micro-grants in a single country (Tanzania) to community-based organizations mostly focused on early childhood education and development (pre-primary), both within and outside the formal education system. Firelight Foundation sought to:

  • take advantage of the close proximity of its partners to one another to share experiences, ideas, problems, and solutions;
  • leverage stories about how children were doing shared word-of-mouth between communities to facilitate expansion of innovations from one community-based organization to others;
  • provide a wider menu of capacity-building support to community-based organizations based on their own priorities.

TrustAfrica chose to make larger (though still relatively small) grants in four countries (Kenya, Uganda, Senegal and Mali) focusing on the development and use of mother-tongue teaching and learning materials and improved teaching practices for reading instruction during children’s first few years of primary school. TrustAfrica’s sought to:

  • leverage its Pan-African identity and its experience convening decision-makers and others concerned about education to share results and advocate for change;
  • create a network of grantees across countries for peer learning and to collectively share their results with donors who would be willing to support expansion of their work;
  • provide more targeted capacity building support to local NGOs to strengthen their monitoring and evaluation systems.


  • Good work and experimentation is abundant, but much of it still goes largely unnoticed and unmeasured. Both Firelight Foundation and TrustAfrica found a number of promising innovations and provided them with support to further test and demonstrate results.
  • Both provided their grantees with critical support to strengthen their capacity to better measure the impact of their interventions on learning. Firelight Foundation’s more extensive capacity building also helped strengthen small community-based organizations in other important ways.
  • Both received high marks for their flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness to grantees’ needs.


  • The most promising innovations are still not getting the broader exposure and longer-term support they need to expand. The Hewlett Foundation, Firelight Foundation, and TrustAfrica could have been more proactive in understanding education system dynamics in order to create more concrete plans for their uptake, and supporting communication with the right decision-makers (either at the community/district level in the case of Firelight Foundation, or at the district or national level in the case of Trust Africa).
  • The Hewlett Foundation could have more clearly communicated its expectation for monitoring and evaluation of these innovations.

What do we hope other foundations and donors will learn from our experience? Here are three key lessons:

1. Be realistic about timing. Donors and grant recipients often underestimate the time and effort required for program start-up. (For more on this subject, read Ruth Levine’s blog about the zero year.) It is also essential that they build a deeper understanding and test assumptions about the program life-cycle along the way; how to expand a promising innovation is not always evident at the start, or could change with time. The most effective organizations will need time to test, learn, and adapt.

2. Be realistic about what to evaluate, how and when. Communicate early, often, and consistently with grantees about your expectations for evaluation of innovative programs. Share resources, examples, and learning from other evaluation work with grantees to help them avoid reinvention or missteps.  Many innovators will need to build capacity and get systems in place (some from the ground up) for monitoring and evaluation before they are ready for impact evaluations. Before attempting an impact evaluation, invest in other ground work, such as monitoring and evaluation systems audits (one was done during this formative evaluation), qualitative evaluations, and documenting more specifically the intervention components, including what has been learned from execution, how the approach has been adapted over time and costs.

3. Be realistic about the time required and the political dynamics necessary for translating grassroots innovations into something larger. Encourage grantees to understand how their approach aligns with (or not) national-level and local priorities (including parental demands); provide additional time and support that helps them develop strategies early on for sharing their results and why these matter with decision-makers at the appropriate level (again, including parents); and finally, help them assess and clarify which avenues for expansion are most viable – expansion of their own service model, government uptake, adoption by other private sector service providers or proliferation of the innovation’s principles and practices across a variety of service providers.

In 2014/2015, the Hewlett Foundation renewed its support for both Firelight Foundation and TrustAfrica to allow them to continue to work with the most promising of these innovations for improving learning for young children.  Over the next year, they will measure and gather additional data to communicate how their work is affecting children’s learning and intensify efforts to connect with other educational service organizations, government officials and donors to identify opportunities for expansion.

You can also read TrustAfrica and Firelight Foundation’s own perspectives about what they learned from this evaluation process and their future plans for the program at their site. And for more about how innovations in learning get started and expand or scale-up, you might also want to check out the series of case studies from the Center for Universal Education at Brookings Millions Learning project, and watch for more from them in 2016!