How far can online learning take local capacity building?

OAKLAND, California — On Tuesday, Philanthropy University, a nonprofit education initiative that offers free online courses for social changemakers, is launching its new platform, the organization exclusively shared with Devex.

What sets this organization apart in the crowded online education space is its focus on capacity building for local organizations in emerging economies. Based in Oakland, California, Philanthropy University is on a mission to impact 100 million people by 2020. This new platform is part of what the organization and its partners describe as “capacity building 2.0,” in part because it will offer not only content but also community.

“We’re reimagining capacity building for the digital age,” Connor Diemand-Yauman, chief executive officer of Philanthropy University, told Devex. “What that means is we’re challenging assumptions and practices about how to best strengthen civil society and how to measure that strengthening. All of our work is based on a deeply held belief that all development rests on the back of these local changemakers. And yet, in many cases these changemakers and their unique needs have been overlooked.”

Saudi philanthropist Amr Al-Dabbagh, whose family’s Stars Foundation has worked in a variety of ways to support local organizations in the “global south,” donated several million dollars to launch the initiative. In 2015, Philanthropy University partnered with the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and NovoEd, a for-profit education technology company that operated the technology platform, and offered seven courses. After its launch, the organization saw 500,000 enrollments, with 240,000 learners signing up for multiple courses. Sixty percent of those students were from developing countries.

“We realized from our early pilots that our challenges and more specifically the challenges of our users would require custom technology,” said Diemand-Yauman. “Local changemakers have unique capacity building needs and it’s our team’s job to meet those needs with innovative, tech-enabled, and scalable solutions.”


New ways of thinking

Last year, the organization put a pause on its content, and began to develop a new digital interface. The team wanted to optimize for internet limitations and allow practitioners to connect with their peers so they could learn from one another. Because there was no digital interface designed for these users, the team decided to build the platform from the ground up, relaunching it this week.

“I learned as much as my students did the first time around,” said Tom Wolf, who teaches three of the seven courses Philanthropy University will offer to begin with: Introduction to Fundraising; Fundraising: Connecting with Donors; and Fundraising Strategies.

Wolf talked about how he adapted what he might normally teach as he learned to understand the unique challenges that learners from developing countries face. These challenges include technical limitations, such as slow video streaming speeds, which Philanthropy University is accounting for in new ways, including constructing Massive Online Open Courses entirely from podcasts for low bandwidth accessibility. But there are also unique challenges facing individuals who try to fundraise in these markets, such as a lack of local capital, meaning not all of his advice can translate to a developing country context.

“We are moving away from what we have been calling in the capacity development field  ‘capacity development 1.0,’” said Barney Singer, director of leadership and organizational capacity building programs at FHI 360, which developed a Planning for Monitoring & Evaluation course in collaboration with Philanthropy University.

Topics that have not traditionally been part of organizational development curricula, such as social network development and analysis, have grown in importance, he said. Instead of just asking FHI 360 to turn over its materials, Philanthropy University worked closely with it to develop outlines of modules, he added, suggesting that the way this new platform will bring together communities of practice presents a rich opportunity for community building — part of capacity building 2.0.

“Philanthropy University is bringing forward a platform that combines the kinds of resources we’ve been using with an approach that will engage learners in an interactive way,” he said. “This feels like the right moment for something like this to succeed.”

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