The following is a conversation between Joe Wolf, co-founder & CEO of Imagine Worldwide, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Hundreds of millions of children and youth do not have access to school, and hundreds of millions more go to school but never learned to read or write due to overcrowded schools, teacher shortages, absenteeism… among other things. Imagine Worldwide is a nonprofit organization that is laser-focused on assuring that the most marginalized children can develop critical foundational literacy and numeracy skills.
Joe: Thank you for having me.
“My co-founder Susan Colby and I came together with the common belief that while talent is universal, opportunity is not. And we were committed to finding a massively scalable solution that could affordably both level the playing field and elevate and empower all children to be able to realize their potential.”
Denver: Imagine was founded in 2017. Tell us a little bit about the organization and what sparked the idea to start it.
Joe: Thank you. My co-founder Susan Colby and I came together with the common belief that while talent is universal, opportunity is not. And we were committed to finding a massively scalable solution that could affordably both level the playing field and elevate and empower all children to be able to realize their potential.
Our angle on this is around core foundational literacy and numeracy skills. You find very high correlations between children that are literate and numerate and, really, every other social outcome that we care about. Children that are literate live longer. They take better care of themselves. They take better care of the environment. They make more money.
And what’s interesting is that all of these positive impacts are multi-generational; kids that are literate will very likely have literate kids themselves. Brothers and sisters become literate once one person in the family becomes literate. So there’s a huge compounding effect of this change, this transformation that happens in children.
And we really think of it as the keys that unlock the potential of the child because the child that is literate and numeric can then consume additional information, which can be additional educational information, but also it can be healthcare or nutrition or farming or anything else that you want to teach that child.
So I came to the work with a long time ago background in the investment world. I was a public market investor and committed to leaving that world about a dozen years ago to focus exclusively on the education nonprofit space, all around looking at how technology can customize learning, personalize learning, democratize content, relieve pressures on systems.
And I developed for nonprofits that were all interconnected. The first three were focused on the US K-12 system, all looking at the implementation of technology. And the fourth was incubated and then came into its own as Imagine Worldwide. My co-founder, Susan Colby, was running education for McKinsey, and I was able to convince her to leave that very illustrious post and join us in this endeavor.
Denver: Fantastic. I love the sustainability of your work and as you say, that cascading effect. Joe, over 500 million children do not attain basic literacy or numeracy skills. What are some of the reasons for that?
Joe: So we think about the work that we do in sort of three buckets, if you will. The first are children that do not go to school at all, and there’s almost 200 million kids in the world that sadly fall into that reality. Those children sometimes are in conflict zones and therefore cannot get to school. Sometimes they are kids that are required to be working rather than going to school. Sometimes there are gender issues that prohibit those children from going to school.
And so, there are several hundred million that fall into that category. The second are children that are going to school, but because of a severe lack of resources are just not getting what they need to be able to empower themselves to get these skills. So very large classes… many of the classrooms that we work in have over 100 children per classroom, sometimes as many as 200 kids per classroom.
Often these same classrooms don’t have electricity, don’t have books, don’t have desks and chairs. And so while children are in school, the ability for us to deliver the kids with what they need to be successful is really challenged. These are often also married with issues like teacher absenteeism or a lack of teacher training, lack of instructional materials. So all of these make it quite difficult for children to get what they need.
And then the third category are refugee children, which is a bit of a hybrid. Sometimes there are formal learning spaces, often there’s not. But in almost all cases, the learning environments are so under-resourced that it’s really challenging for children to get what they need to be successful.
“So what technology can do very beautifully is to understand where a child is and deliver instruction that is specifically catered to that level and ability, and then let kids move at their own pace. That removes the concept of being bored, the concept of being lost, and really allows kids to progress at their own pace… which drives up engagement.”
Denver: The heart of what you do is, let’s say Child-Directed, Tech-Enabled Learning. Unravel that for us.
Joe: Sure. That’s a mouthful. So at the heart of hearts, the two wonderful benefits of education technology are number one, the ability to personalize and customize learning so that children can learn at their own pace. Most educational systems group children by their age, and then march them through based on time and make very little differentiation between where any given child might be.
In a US context, in a low-income environment, you might see as much as three or four years of variance in the aptitude of children. If we then think about that in the environments that we work in with 200 kids in that classroom, the range is very, very wide. And so for a teacher to try to be relevant to all of those children at the same time, somehow middling the education so that no one’s bored and that no one’s lost is really impossible.
So what technology can do very beautifully is to understand where a child is and deliver instruction that is specifically catered to that level and ability, and then let kids move at their own pace. That removes the concept of being bored, the concept of being lost, and really allows kids to progress at their own pace… which drives up engagement.
The second is around the democratization of content. So rather than being captive to the one adult that happens to show up in a given learning setting, make the content the very best that’s available in the world, have it be adapted to the proficiencies of the child, and have the adults play the role of coach and mentor and advisor, help with social and emotional skills… all the things that adult humans can uniquely do… but allow the technology to really help us with some of that differentiation, especially in a highly, highly, highly under-resourced environment.
Denver: Yeah. So you’re sort of flipping the classroom a little bit where they’re getting the lecture from the tech, and then the teacher is coming in and doing the sort of project work or the support work or answering questions. Well, there are a myriad of other EdTech solutions out there. What makes yours different?
Joe: So that’s a really good question. So there are thousands and thousands of EdTech products as you’ve mentioned. Really there are a number of considerations that we have to have for the environments in which we work. The number one is that the products need to be able to work offline.
Roughly 5% of children in Africa have access to the internet. And so while there are thousands of companies and tens of billions of dollars that are poured into education technology, almost no products have been developed to work offline. Almost all of them require consistent productivity. So number one, it has to work offline.
Number two is that we have to have the product have autonomous characteristics, and that you cannot assume high-quality, teacher-led instruction that then has a supplemental education technology product. Most of the EdTech market is supplemental in nature, meaning you’re using the product for remediation or for acceleration, or to plug certain holes, or to reinforce certain things that the teacher is doing.
In many of our environments, we just don’t have enough high-quality, trained instructors, so our content has to be able to stand fully on its own, autonomous in nature, with the child at the center. We also have a number of other realities in these markets. Number one is that it needs to be affordable. We don’t have a lot of budget in most of these contexts, so we have to have products that are affordable and scalable economically.
They also have to be adaptive. They have to allow children to move at their own pace, and they have to be in multiple languages. While English is great and is used in many of our contexts, we also need to be able to have products available in French or Swahili or Chichewa or Portuguese, and over time, many, many more languages to satisfy the needs of the children that we serve.
Denver: Let me pick up on two things you said. We’ll start with affordable. What does it cost per child, per year?
Joe: So the way we think about pricing… so the core model is a tablet. The tablet comes preloaded with content because we don’t have productivity. That tablet you can hand to a child that’s never seen technology, never seen numbers or letters, and the tablet can first teach the child to use itself.
It teaches touching and swiping, things that often are the first-time experiences for children that have not had access to technology. And then it starts with numbers and letters and marches them through to fluency. It’s about a 45-minute session that we try to do each day, five days a week, and we’re able to rotate around five children per day, per tablet. So five different children will use each tablet each day.
And because of that, our unit level economics, or the cost per child is very attractive. We’re delivering right now at about $8 per child per year. And that’s the hardware plus the software, plus all the peripherals, the headphones, the rubber bumpers, the screen protectors, the charging solutions, the logistics, the transport, the training, all of that.
So the $8 per child per year is for the technology solution. And then separate from that, we have a cost of the implementation. So depending on who our local implementation partner is, there are some additional costs, but even with that, it is very, very affordable, even in a really challenged environment.
Denver: How many children have you been able to reach? And you have mentioned environment before, what countries are you operating in?
Joe: Yeah, so in the next 12 months, we will be in eight countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. We’ll be working in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. We also have a very significant expansion occurring in Malawi.
We work in Tanzania and we also work in Bangladesh, in Cox’s Bazar with the International Rescue Committee. Over the course of the next, let’s say three years, we expect to serve north of one hundred thousand children, and significantly bigger than that over time.
“We also find that there are aspects of the implementation model that do vary from place to place, but at its core, it’s a relatively straightforward implementation in that the child needs to have consistent access to the technology, to the content. And the more access they have to it, the more learning occurs.”
Denver: Yeah. How consistent is your model in each one of those countries? In other words, do you really need to adapt to one country as opposed to another, or is it pretty much uniform across those eight countries?
Joe: Ah, that’s a good question. So each place has its own contextualization. So our wonderful software providers do an excellent job of not only translating to additional languages, but also contextualizing the product so that it is most relevant to that local context.
We also find that there are aspects of the implementation model that do vary from place to place, but at its core, it’s a relatively straightforward implementation in that the child needs to have consistent access to the technology, to the content. And the more access they have to it, the more learning occurs.
We actually have done a lot of really rigorous research studies, and we find that learning is highly correlated with what we call time on task, the amount of time that the child uses the tablet. That seems like a very obvious correlation, but often in education, it is not. And so a lot of our implementation models will vary simply to make sure that given the local context, we’re able to get time on task to be where we need it to be.
Denver: Mm-hmm. I know one of the key roles that Imagine plays is building evidence. So tell us about your impact and how you go about measuring it.
Joe: So, evidence is absolutely critical. It’s core to everything that we do. The largest investment we made as a young nonprofit was actually in the research function. We ran randomized controlled trials right out of the gates, which is quite unusual for…
Denver: That sure is.
Joe: …education technology.
And so our belief is that research matters, data matters, especially in highly under-resourced environments because we just don’t have the budgets in those contexts to be able to speculatively buy things and have them not work out and then move on to the next thing, like we’re able to do in more resourced environments.
And so we made a large investment in a really strong research team. We’ve run randomized controlled trials which sets up to measure the efficacy of what we do compared to control groups. We do that in a very disciplined way. We also do that in a very equitable way where we always make sure that the control group that doesn’t get the treatment in our studies does have access to the learning solutions after that trial finishes up.
We also have a whole host of other research methods. We do action research. We do qualitative research. We’re actually building an e-assessment that will sit on the tablet and be free and available to the world. So we have a whole host of different methods that we take on to learn what works and why for which type of children.
And to really fuel what we call this Continuous Improvement Loop where our sites generate data; our research team collects that data and generates learnings. And then those learnings are passed back to both our software providers and our implementation partners so that everyone is rapidly, rapidly improving and getting better.
And what’s happening in Sierra Leone is explicitly impacting what happens in Malawi, which impacts what happens in Tanzania. We want to create this network of shared learning where everybody is both contributing to and benefiting from the collective wisdom that is accruing.
And what’s wonderful, again, about education technology is that unlike a school where you build a school, you put in books, you come back 10 years later and everything has just deteriorated. In an environment where you can constantly be updating the software and updating the implementation model, there’s really this opportunity that when we come back year after year after year, things have significantly improved because of those shared learnings.
Denver: Yeah. I’ve always found that the best measurements are by those organizations that are inspired not to show impact to show donors to get more money, but to show impact and to measure it to get better. And that always seems to be, it’s the primacy of getting better than trying to be able to solicit more donations.
Hey, should I be surprised at this? I mean, this whole concept is pretty daunting when you stop and think about really self-directed learning through a tablet from a child without really a lot of adult supervision. They play a key role, obviously, but it’s a minimal role. It’s more of a supervisory role. How surprised are we to hear that? I think that’s sort of counterintuitive to the way we think about education being done.
Joe: So the magic to me is the ability for children to learn at their own pace. We all had situations where we either are in a classroom and we’re way ahead of the class and we’re bored… or we’re in a class and it’s just as beyond where we are and we’re lost. In either of those cases, we disengage.
We’ve also had a lot of experiences where we love math one year because we had a great teacher, and then the next year we didn’t really like math because we had a lousy teacher.
Denver: Yeah, you’re right.
Joe: I say that with all due respect to people that show up and work hard every day, but there is a wide…
Denver: You struck a chord there. Absolutely. I can even think of the two teachers.
Joe: Right. There’s a wide variability. And so what is at the magic of this is that the child is moving at their own pace supported by really beautiful, wonderful content. Now, if you had very small classrooms, and you had really talented humans, they can replicate this experience relatively easily.
But as soon as we move into larger environments where you have anything more, in my opinion, than 30 kids, especially if there’s other challenges that are going on for those children… which is usually the case, it becomes a very, very difficult job to differentiate that instruction.
And so what we have experimented with here is the idea of technology providing that customization on an extremely child-centric basis, with the child at the center of their own learning, and the child being the one that drives their performance, and the adults playing that role of facilitator, the role of coach and mentor.
And what we’re finding is that all children are able to benefit in their own way. So we see faster performance from the children that are ahead. We see faster performance from those that are behind, and therefore those that are in the middle are also able to progress.
We’ve seen in our results very statistically meaningful outperformance in both literacy and numeracy. We’ve also seen a number of other benefits. So attendance is improving. Behavior in classroom is improving. Persistence in school is improving.
We’re seeing gender parity between boys and girls in environments that have huge structural biases built into the system where girls often are not given the same level of access and are not able to perform at the same levels. We’re seeing that parity.
We’re seeing in the refugee camps in particular that stress management is being impacted, that kids are saying they are less stressed, that the families are saying my kids are less stressed because they have things that are engaging them productively.
So we think we’re really onto something very special here. We would say that we’re in the early innings, if you will. I have to use the baseball analogy. We’re in the early innings of what’s possible because this is new.
But because of this continuous improvement cycle, we really do think we have the ability to continue to increase the efficacy of what we’re doing over time, to really expand the types of information that is available to these children, continue to drive down the pricing; as we get better economies of scale, the pricing will continue to go down.And just the deflationary nature of technology itself will push the pricing down.
So we really think about this relationship between value and cost. And we really see both the numerator and the denominator in that equation continuing to improve over time.
“…the reality is that there are roughly 500 million children in the world that do not have access to this core technology. We’ve heard about the digital divide. We call it a digital canyon that is forming between those that have and those that need. And so we’re really working hard to try to mobilize the capital to be able to close that gap.”
Denver: Notwithstanding all those things that you just mentioned, whose trajectory is really positive, what’s the biggest challenge you face right now?
Joe: So the model is very dependent on finding really good local partners. The local partners are the ones that understand the context, that have the right relationships, that understand what’s best for their children. Our job is to empower those local partners with what they need to be successful.
So number one, we have to identify really good local partners. Luckily, we think there’s a lot of them out there, and they don’t all need to be education institutions. There’s a lot of different people that do great work in these environments that we can partner with.
Number two is that we as an organization have to build the tools and systems to be able to repeatedly provide value and scale, and so we’re investing a lot of energy on our time around: What are the things that we need to do repeatedly well in order to be able to scale these implementations to millions of children over time. So there is a lot of work that needs to go in there.
And lastly, the demand is everywhere. You could point us really anywhere right now in the world, and there’s huge pockets of children that would benefit from these solutions. Our focus right now is on Sub-Saharan Africa. We think these solutions are particularly well-suited for the structural constraints that exist in those environments.
We also see a real lack of other market participants, and so we’re doing something that, in our opinion, we think is very valuable. And so these different demand centers, these different places that need what we have all require capital. And there is a significant lack of capital flowing to the children that don’t have access to the internet, that don’t have devices readily available, that don’t have commercial entities that are actively pursuing serving them.
I was recently at one of the largest EdTech conferences in the world– 5,000 people, tens of billions of dollars that had been invested. And I was one of the only people in the entire room that was talking about offline content. Everyone is developing content that will suit those that have access to resources, those that have access to the internet or devices.
Whereas the reality is that there are roughly 500 million children in the world that do not have access to this core technology. We’ve heard about the digital divide. We call it a digital canyon that is forming between those that have and those that need. And so we’re really working hard to try to mobilize the capital to be able to close that gap.
Denver: Yeah. Talk a little bit about your financial model and maybe some of your donors and your partners and how you’re going about it.
Joe: So we are a California-based 501(c)(3), which means we are a nonprofit. We do have about a third of our team based in Africa. I think in the next couple of years, we probably will have two-thirds of our team based in Africa. So we are very focused on proximate leadership and empowering our local partners and our local staff with more and more decision-making and more and more resources over time.
We are about 50% funded by foundations that focus on this type of work. Those range from Imaginable Futures to Valhalla, Mulago, Draper Richards Kaplan, UBS Optimus, Cartier, the Jacobs Foundation, people like that. Thank you to all of those great institutions.
And about 50% high net worth individuals, people that have seen innovation disrupt status quo. So we have a lot of technology-oriented individuals, some from the finance world, some from the media and entertainment world.
Really common theme are those that care about children and those that care about seeing a model that is, number one, massively scalable. Number two, evidence- generative and evidence-based. And number three, those that are truly serving the most marginalized children. And so that tends to be the profile of our funders, both on the institutional and the individual side.
Denver: Cool. Joe, this has not been an easy time to be in charge of a nonprofit organization. Tell us how you believe that the nature of leadership has changed, and then maybe some of the things that you’ve done to adapt over the course of the last two years or so to respond to those changes.
Joe: It’s a good question. COVID has brought forth a wave of innovative thinking that never would have happened otherwise. And while it was devastating to so many people across the world… and the reality in education is we had about a billion children at home with no connectivity and no devices. So learning halted for a billion children for close to two years, which is catastrophic in terms of the impact that that has and the challenges with catching up.
But what it did do is it forced global organizations, whether that be governments, whether that be NGOs, whether that be multilateral funders, all to say, “You know what? This thing that we thought was on the periphery called education technology… or something that we were spending a little bit of time on… actually has a role.”
And it has a role both in terms of contingency in case something else happens in the future. But it also has a role in addressing… I think it created a magnifying glass on just how challenged some of these situations were even before COVID. And so we’re seeing a wave of action that just never would’ve happened otherwise.
I think what it’s also done to our work… along with other leaders that I talked to… is that it forced us to start doing things in very different ways. And so our implementation model used to involve us flying into location and being with our partners for weeks at a time to try to figure out what needed to happen.
We’ve now learned how to do remote implementations, and COVID forced us to do so. So we launched in countries that we have not visited… with partners that we’ve not met in person. It isn’t optimal. I think optimal is to have a hybrid model, but it has really opened up our ability to be able to work in different areas, to work with different partners.
It really, I think, accelerated our commitment to building strong African leadership. We needed it during the pandemic, and I think all of us are convinced that that is the right leadership for our organization in many ways. Our job is to support the local leaders that we partner with. And so we’re having to do things in a very different way.
I will say that I was just in Africa a couple of weeks ago for the first time since the pandemic, and it really filled my bucket. And you cannot replace the interpersonal aspects of being together and having lunch together, and really doing the work together. But the technology and Zoom and things like that have really opened up the world in a way that is profound and I think long lasting.
Denver: Yeah, I hear it didn’t replace it, but it has helped amplify the work you were doing. And it’s this combination that actually puts you in a lot better place. Having visited Africa, what do you do about the wellbeing of your team? For leaders, this is such a big concern right now in terms of not burning them out and keeping them engaged. Is there anything that Imagine is doing specifically to assure for that wellbeing?
Joe: I love that question. One of our core values is the word vitality. We actually had a whole team development session recently on the word “vitality,” vitality of self, vitality of organization, vitality team. What do we do individually and collectively to make sure that we are doing everything to support one another, to make sure that we are generating balance, to make sure that everyone is getting the help that they need?
So to me, it’s about open, honest communication. It’s about promoting a spirit of collaboration and even vulnerability where we’re all comfortable saying, “Hey, I’m hitting a wall here,” or “Hey, I dropped the ball on this one. Can somebody help me out?” And really being a team in the truest sense that says, “You know what? I’ve got your back here, and this is hard work.”
And the complexity of the time zones and the different cultures is really testing and trying. I mean, in a lot of ways and, you know, a lot of real life happens in the communities that we serve every single day, and there’s a certain backlash of that that does hit the team. And so we all feel incredibly privileged to be able to do this work.
I wake up every day truly grateful to be able to do what I get to do, but also acknowledging that it can be very tough on the team, and we need to make sure that we go out of our way to promote a culture of openness and honesty and equity. And I come back to the word “vulnerability” that’s able to say, “Hey, this is where we all need help.”
Denver: Yeah. And I love that other V word, too. I love vitality. And it does sound like the kind of organization that just assumes best intent. It isn’t pointing fingers, but you assume the best intent, and that can go an awful long way. Finally, Joe, what’s next for Imagine Worldwide?
Joe: So we have a significant amount of growth ahead of us. The first phase of our work was all research-oriented to prove the efficacy of these solutions. The now, the next phase is around scaling. We call it the learning-to-scale phase because there are a lot of things that we still have to learn.
But we have eight to 10 countries on our immediate horizon. In each of those countries, we have great local partners and a commitment to really go deeper and deeper in terms of the number of children that we serve. We think about our work on three pillars. The first is access. So we need to continue to have these solutions available to more children and build the systems that we need to support our partners.
Number two is affordability. So we need to continue to drive down the cost per student. Right now, we’re around $8 as I mentioned. I think we’ll go sub-$5 as we get better economies of scale. And then number three is efficacy. How do we create this continuous improvement loop so that we are constantly getting better, and really a culture with our partners of all contributing to that process?
If we do those three things well, we really do believe that we’re at the very early stages of what could be a completely transformational initiative across education. And we’re a nonprofit. We’re great partners. We love organizations to partner with. We’re willing to play whatever role is needed to be successful, but we don’t have defined roles that we must play.
And so we really welcome partners that are interested in this work. We will be open sourcing a lot of what we do, if not all of what we do, over time. We know that this is a very big problem with half a billion children, so we are but one player in the mix, but really want to do things that try to pull other organizations, other software providers, other implementing organizations, other intermediary organizations, other funding organizations.
We know that we all need to be at the table to make this happen, and so please see us as one that’s willing to play that facilitator role and that collaboration role.
Denver: That’s fantastic. For listeners who want to learn more about Imagine Worldwide, or if they are maybe inclined to financially support this work– and you’ve made it clear, you get a lot of bang for your buck– tell us about your website and what they can expect to find on it.
Joe: Sure. So we are at imagineworldwide.org. On that website, you will see the research that we’ve done. You’ll see the places that we’re working. You’ll see some profiles of the partners that we have. You’ll learn some about our funders and our team.
We have a terrific board of directors. We also have a wonderful group of research advisors, PhDs from around the world that are experts in literacy and numeracy. So we’ve really sort of tried to surround ourselves with some of the smartest minds to help influence this work. Definitely welcome your participation. Please go to the website.
Also on the website is a mailing list. We do quarterly newsletters. We are investing increasingly in spreading the word. So know that if you’re there, we will be able to reach out to you, but we very much appreciate you listening and hope that you’ll get involved.
Denver: Thanks, Joe, for being on the program today. It was a real delight to have you on the show.
Joe: Thank you. It was great to be here, and we really appreciate everything you do. Thank you for your efforts.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.
Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes for free here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.