What’s ‘Radical’ About Pencils of Promise’s Commitment to Transparency

What’s ‘Radical’ About Pencils of Promise’s Commitment to Transparency

Foreground: Jaclene Roshan, Pencil of Promise’s Director of Transparency & Data Innovation / Pencils of Promise

Today’s entrepreneurs are smitten with modifiers that magnify their mission and purpose. It’s not enough to pursue innovation—it has to be disruptive. Creating change isn’t sufficient; it must be transformational. What these hyperboles mean, of course, depends on the context in which they’re used, and who’s using the term.

In New York City, one nonprofit has been unabashedly vocal about its commitment to transparency. Since 2008, Pencils of Promise (PoP) has raised money to build 353 schools in Ghana, Guatemala, Laos and Nicargua. It provides not only the walls, furniture and other physical infrastructure, but curriculum materials, teacher support and training as well.

PoP embraced the term “radical transparency” in a recent blog post introducing its first “Quarterly Transparency Report” (PDF). Every key performance indicator in the report—among them attendance, assessments, handwashing, hygiene—included links where readers could dive into the data presented via Tableau.

“2016 is going to be a revolutionary year for radical data transparency within the nonprofit sector, and PoP plans to be at the forefront of this effort,” wrote Jaclene Roshan, who fittingly holds the title of Director of Transparency and Data Innovation. We chatted with Roshan over the phone and asked her to share PoP’s efforts, lessons learned in the art of school-building, and what “radical” transparency actually means to her organization.

EdSurge: What is the mission of Pencils of Promise? What goals does it aspire to achieve?

Roshan: Pencils in Promise is an international educational organization working in developing countries with local governments and education ministries to improve their public education systems. Our schools cost $35,000 on average per build.

We not only provide infrastructure for kids to go to primary school in places where there is none, but also partner with communities in order to create programs. That takes the form of teacher support programs, scholarship programs, water, sanitation and hygiene programs. And we’re continuing to develop programs along with education ministries to ensure that students are becoming literate.

PoP recently published a quarterly report emphasizing the word “transparency.” What prompted this commitment?

We think that all NGOs have the responsibility to report back to those who keep their organization running. If we’re not data driven, and we’re not really willing to change in order to have the greatest impact possible, then we’re in the wrong industry.

PoP started off as a school building organization, and we used a ton of forms to collect information. Running literacy and health programs are a fairly new thing for us over the past few years. But as we’ve developed them, we worked with external consultants to develop monitoring and evaluation systems.

I joined three-and-a-half years ago coming from a background in database engineering. I started building out a tracking application that could link information from these different programs with each other. In conjunction with creating new monitoring and evaluation tools, building out the database, training the teams on the ground on inputting data, and integrating a business intelligence solution like Tableau, we’re finally in a place where we can report our data seamlessly.

This latest report is the launch of our TDI department, which stands for Transparency and Data Innovation. We’ve been developing an in-house data tracking application using Salesforce. And we’ve been building this out so that we have a way to report out on our monitoring and evaluation efforts.

How does “radical” transparency differ from typical transparency or the industry standard?

We have decided that radical transparency to us means showing progress in our outcomes, even though sometimes those are going to take a very, very long time to change. And making that data accessible to anyone.

Every single metric in the report has a “Verify the Results” or “See the Data Live” button, which all link back to our public Tableau page. We’re syncing the data every two weeks from Salesforce. This allows anyone to be able to download that raw data and do analysis themselves. This means people who think we’re skewing the numbers and reporting only on positive things can have all of the data to analyze.

What important lessons has PoP learned from efforts that haven’t panned out as well as imagined?

Community buy-in is really key. We have to establish ourselves with people on the ground before any of our programs are ever going to work. Over 90 percent of our staff in each country are locals, and that is key. We don’t want to send over a bunch of Westerners to start building up programs and talking to governments.

In terms of things that haven’t really worked, our scholarship program is designed so that students can progress from primary school to secondary school. But we decided that we really are trying to hone in on primary education to get students literate enough to succeed in secondary school. Scholarships are sort of a stretch where we’re trying to also be in secondary schools and monitor students’ progress. We made the decision to sort of halt that program for the time being, because we want to focus in on what our mission truly is, and that’s to drive primary education for students.

What is one statistic that you are least enthused about?

We have long-term indicators that are not going to change drastically quickly. Our teacher attendance rate [at 87 percent] is fairly high, but have a goal of hitting 90 percent. We know that it’s going to take quite a bit of time to work with teachers in a way where they actually believe in the mission, believe in coming to school because of our program. There’s a complex behavior change that has to take place.

The same goes for the percentage of students who pass [a grade]. Eighty-eight percent is very high, and we know that it’s high compared to global standards. But when we compare this number to our control groups, it’s actually only two percent higher.

What can other nonprofits and companies do to be more transparent?

I hope to see people shift from just looking at results to really understanding results. Some organizations will put great numbers on their website, but not explain what those metrics really mean. If we can educate our audience, then hopefully they’ll start looking more closely at the numbers put out by other popular, flashier organizations.

Who are your donors? How do you solicit support from them?

Our first school was built with all donations being under $100, which is insane. We’ve been early adopters of online peer-to-peer fundraising with groups of people who reach out to their network. To this day, a lot of our primary supporters come through peer-to-peer [connections].

Part of what we’re doing actually with all of these efforts to be very data-driven and transparent and report out on our metrics is to have that longitudinal data for our programs that we can use to approach larger institutional funders.

Speaking of flashy, I see Justin Bieber featured as one of PoP’s supporter. How’d that happen? And why isn’t he in the transparency report?

Justin’s actually been a member of the PoP family since early days. When he was like a 13-year-old kid with a guitar on YouTube, he met our founder, Adam Braun. Adam’s older brother is actually Justin’s manager, Scooter Braun. Adam told Justin about the organization that he had recently started at the time and Justin was an instant supporter, and he really believed in our mission. Over the past few years, he’s donated millions of dollars to the organization. He’s currently donating a dollar from all ticket sales on his “Purpose” tour.

We just honored him actually as our first Pencils of Promise Global Ambassador. But we also want our work to stand on its own without the face of a celebrity. The reason that he’s not in this report is because it focuses more on sharing internal data and results rather than like external supporters, even though there’s a small section on our community. But you’ll likely see Justin in the Q2 report, since that’s when we gave him the award.

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