What a Small Bet did for HackSchool

June 22, 2017 by

There is a recent conversation in philanthropy encouraging, and even romanticizing, “big bets.” Given that we're a small foundation that operates more like a think tank, we've found ourselves focusing on just the opposite. Heeding the advice of our friends at 4.0 Schools, we think our greatest impact can come from making small bets, and making them earlier. We prefer to partner deeply with education entrepreneurs by providing time, feedback, and connections, and giving them a smaller amount of money (between $5,000-$10,000) long before other funders are at the table. This money doesn't result from a lengthy, involved grant application or a shark-tank pitch competition, but rather from building organic relationships with thoughtful people leading truly boundary-pushing ventures with their community.

To illustrate the power of this kind of investing, we interviewed Nathan Pai Schmitt, the co-founder of HackSchool - now called The HadaNõu Collective. The HadaNõu Collective (HNC) empowers students, educators and communities to transform America's education system. They do this by opening centers within neighborhood public schools, and are seeking to create new schools grounded in Authentic Education to open in 2019. In 2016, DK made an early investment in HNC of $10,000 that, according to Nathan, came at a pivotal time to enable this idea to get off the ground and grow into what it is today. This morning it was announced that The HadaNõu Collective won the competitive Teach For America Social Innovation grant. We couldn't be happier for them!

Tell me about the origins of HackSchool. How long had you been thinking about this idea before you shared it with the DK team?

My co-founder, Wisdom Amouzou, and I have been developing HackSchool through smaller pilots over the past 5 years. Because we were teaching full time, this meant using “enrichment” periods, which we had once per day at school, to design and run classes in authentic outdoor education, street art/murals, computer programming, identity and social justice, English language learning (with students in Brazil), and many other areas. This freedom allowed us to try new things, and we found that students were most motivated when there was something real at stake. For example, they wanted to impress the professional artist who came in twice a week to help with the mural, or in another class, they wanted to make sure they could survive our camping trip into the mountains. We noticed that this authenticity of experience created a true sense of ownership in our students, and this became the starting point from which we’ve grown.

What has happened at HackSchool since DK’s initial investment in 2016?

The past year has been pretty unbelievable! Our HackSchool students have created lots of amazing things to help people both in our community and around the world: a “smart” cane for visually impaired people, a “smart” free food pantry that serves Northwest Denver (soon to be more), 3D modeled instructional materials for a K12 school for visually impaired students in India, and the list goes on. We’ve had students invited to the White House multiple times, and one of our students was appointed to be one of President Obama’s 11 Kid Science Advisors as a result of her work.

We’ve also grown as an organization: this fall, we’ll have five centers within public schools across the Denver metro area, under the umbrella of The HadaNõu Collective (our new name, a combination of our families’ languages, meaning “to humbly offer a solution”). We currently have six full-time people at HNC and are continuing to build out our world class team.

New school models often fail because they are forced to solve too many hard problems at once. Our approach has enabled us to isolate these hard problem-sets without the distraction and pressure of traditional academic metrics on day one. Academic growth is critical to the work we do, but we needed the freedom to do things in the right order: first comes student excitement and ownership, and only after that can we understand how to overlay academics.

What has your experience been trying to raise philanthropic money to support HackSchool?

We are not supposed to exist. There are many accelerators and organizations designed to develop leaders within the current education system, but we felt that most of these opportunities didn’t match with the kind of impact we wanted to make. These programs do great work, but it’s just not our work. The philanthropic infrastructure to support fundamental and deep innovation in the K-12 education space simply does not exist.

We have had the good fortune to grow because of a small handful of visionary philanthropists, and because we developed the skills of organization-building prior to entering the K-12 space. Most educators do not have these skills. This, combined with the lack of philanthropic infrastructure to support them, results in an extremely difficult environment for great educators to create deeply innovative solutions. Now, the way we grow the HadaNou Collective is by finding talented educators who are in the exact same position we were in and giving them the freedom and resources they need to really build something big.

We could speak at length here about the specific features of the landscape that get in the way of deep innovation, and what could bring those barriers down, but that probably deserves an entire blog to itself. In summary, the current philanthropic landscape unintentionally precludes certain categories of innovation from emerging. This is understandable because there is a natural gap between where American education is now and where we are going. But this gap gets in the way of our progress. Foundations like Donnell-Kay see this early, and their investment in us was critical in bridging that gap.

As you continue to pursue your idea to improve education, what would you like to impart on philanthropists when they have the opportunity to support ideas like HackSchool early?

First, work with young organizations to identify risks and corresponding control measures they can take. It is possible to de-risk situations that look hopelessly complex, but because they are trying to do everything at once, young organizations need your help. This will also help you, your board, or your program staff better understand the work of the young organization and it will give you a sense for how they think about risk (an important thing to know about early ventures). However, philanthropists should make it very clear that this risk analysis process is not part of vetting the young organizations; it’s part of the ongoing support that comes with an initial investment of dollars.

Second, as we move into this next generation of schools and social impact organizations, it’s important to invest in the development of new data and effectiveness measures. The most innovative work, by definition, can’t yet be measured. Instead of justifying investments through traditional, often mismatched analytics, invest in the development of new ones. This will give you a true gauge of your impact and it will push us all forward. Investing in an organization trying to develop better approaches to data is actually an investment in changing the entire system, far beyond that organization.

For more, visit HNCollective.org or email Nathan and Wisdom at Cofounders@HNCollective.org.