A risk capital approach to education investment

In 2007/08, the South African government spent R105bn on education, while corporate social investment (CSI) in education amounted to R1.3bn. While a significant amount of money, the CSI contribution is a relatively small (about 1%).

SA spends a higher percentage of it’s GDP on education than most other countries (that achieve better results in international education tests). This tells us that there isn’t a shortage of money; our problem is that we don’t get value for money. In such a system, how can non-government stakeholders who care about education play their part? How can they help to achieve value for money? How can they support overall education goals, while not doing the work of government (something that is all to easy to do)?

Corporates, like government, are investing large sums of money but are seeing very little impact. At a recent workshop attended by corporates that invest in education, Ann Bernstein, executive director for the Centre for Development and Enterprise, described how the current approach of uninformed ad hoc interventions are helpful, but not enough to fundamentally improve the education system. There is simply not enough sharing of resources and efforts between players in this space. The randomness, lack of coordination and lack of serious engagement with the systemic issues all undermine the impact of the interventions.

More importantly, though, she suggests that CSI should be thought of as “risk capital” to test innovative ideas that can go to scale. One percent of the total spend is a nice amount to try out innovative ideas, alternative approaches to teaching and learning, etc. We should think of it as R&D money.

Nick Rockey, MD of Trialogue, re-iterated these points at the CSR in Education conference. There is a need for CSI money to be spent in a co-ordinated and rigorous way. What does this mean? Corporates should think about whether they are addressing systemic issues, or whether the success of their intervention is dependent on systemic support. They should invest in demonstration projects that have monitoring and evaluation components built-in. Lessons and best practices should documented and shared. Replication of projects must be kept in mind. In this way it will be possible to influence and support government, thus achieving big impact with relatively low budgets.

I’m pleased to say that the Shuttleworth Foundation has embraced this informed, rigorous and open “risk capital” approach. After a number of years of ad hoc interventions that were valuable in their own right, but did not collectively “move the needle”, we now look at interventions (projects, research, advocacy, etc.) whose outcomes can influence, support or shake-up the whole system. That is the best way for us to get value for money.

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