Education Generation: Crowdfunding Tuition

March 2nd, 2012 12:36 PM


This was originally for

Eileen Knowles, founder and CEO of Education Generation, a new crowdfunding platform for education, says that she wants to “move away from pity-driven charity.”  Rather, she’s working to get stories of the young students that they help fund, so that the donor community gets a better understanding of what’s really needed.  The students, she hopes, will be able to drive the content on their site in the coming years. #
Till then, though, they’re able to access funds from donors, who can contribute $20 and up to a student’s education.  These students hail from developing nations, such as Peru, India, and Rwanda, and are striving towards professional degrees.  These are countries that Knowles is quite familiar herself, having been born and raised in Ecuador.  Plus, she’s worked with Ashoka, the World Bank, Engineers without Borders, and more, grasping the nuances of international development.

Now, she’s tackling education.  Why?  Because she found child sponsorship programs to be too costly; the emphasis has been on access to education, not access to quality education; and there is gap in the donor community when it comes to funding secondary or tertiary education. Here’s our conversation:

Dowser: You’ve got an impressive background in social enterprise.  How did all these experiences lead you to focus on education – did you find a common thread in all your travels/work that led you to believe that education would be the most impactful?
Knowles: I think investing in education is only most impactful when it gives people the tools to realize their own potential and develop a sense of self.  I see tremendous potential in education as an enabling environment for individuals to become active participants of the world around them, as entrepreneurs, teachers, policy makers, and more.  Organizations and programs that do this are very rare and I am interested not only in funding education but learning about models that are re-inventing education.

Why the crowdfunding model?  Did you seek other models?
We saw the crowd-funding model as an opportunity to increase the efficiency of traditional child sponsorships models.  Our platform cuts  organizational overhead costs and high costs for donors. By working with implementing partners,  we are able to reduce costs of scholarship delivery. Plus, through our platform, we create processes that allow for scale.  In our pilot phase we funded over 270 scholarships in 10 countries.

With my previous organization, SEED, we used a traditional child sponsorship model to fund education and found that this model was inefficient, expensive to manage and difficult to scale.

What obstacles have you encountered along the way? What lessons have you learned in building your own social enterprise?
We often have to spend as much time seeking external support to keep EdGen going as we do implementing our actual strategic objectives.   It’s a familiar problem for many organizations like ours, which create public value.

We’ve also taken on a complex task in identifying some of the most progressive secondary and post-secondary student support programs, and then, connecting them to a broad donor community. Balancing the two is always a good challenge.

And, working with partner organizations that aren’t used to the “real time” nature of the web and face real resource constraints on the ground to run their programs effectively, and then balance that with donor expectations for timely and thorough information.

How is EdGen different from other platforms like Vittana, which also enable lenders to give to students?
We focus not only on access but also, and more so, on quality education.  Research shows us that apparently logical and generous interventions (such as providing textbooks/supplies and even access to education) can fail to produce results.  We partner with organizations that are results-driven and are looking to affect systemic change, organizations such as the Akilah Institute for Women, which is developing scalable models for higher education.

We are also developing a Partner Hub.  We see tremendous opportunity for knowledge sharing.  We aim to spark collaboration and increase our value-add to existing and new field partners.

Why donations and not loans?
Through our experience to date, we have no way of ensuring that in an educational context, loans lead to better long term student results.  The barriers for the populations we work with are high and loans would be an added burden to a student.  For that student, rapid employment is not guaranteed.

What’s the best book you’ve read/ talk you’ve heard, that correlates to social enterprise – something that inspires you and gets you going…?
A TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie called “The Danger for a Single Story” has been a great inspiration. She says in the talk that “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. … Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”

I see our platform as an opportunity to tell more complete stories, to bring others’ stories to the forefront and through our investment in education, give our students an avenue to tell their own stories. There is a lot of work that needs to be done at EdGen for us to be satisfied with how we represent our students and this talk is a great reminder for me of why this matters.


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