"A little push can really do wonders"

How the Roger Federer Foundation empowers local communities in Southern Africa

Shortly after winning his first tennis Grand Slam at Wimbledon at the age of 22, Roger Federer decided to pursue a very different goal.

“Because of my success, I was making some money on the tour and was able to pay coaches by myself,” he says. “It was time to think about what I could achieve, not just as a tennis player but also as a human being. I have been very fortunate and privileged in my life, so it was a good starting point to share that with the more unprivileged people in this world.”

The Roger Federer Foundation was born. Influenced by his visits to South Africa – his mother’s country of origin – he wanted to give less privileged children, who are at the beginning of their education path, access to quality education, with a geographical focus on Southern Africa and Switzerland. Currently, there are more than 300,000 children enrolled in the Foundation’s programs.

“We believe in the empowerment of children through education and that every child should have the opportunity of a good start in education,” says Roger Federer Foundation’s CEO, Janine Händel. “The two regions we are focusing on seem very diverse, but when it comes to education, and the needs of children, they are the same around the world. All young children learn through play. This is the same in Switzerland, as in Southern Africa, and that's why our approach to improving the quality of early education is universal.”

The power of local engagement

On the World Bank’s new measure of education, which combines quantity and quality of schooling, most countries in Southern Africa rank among the worst performers globally. Attendance and completion rates remain low.

Lack of community engagement compounds the problem. In many cases, education is regarded as a public good to be delivered by the government, with little to no involvement of local communities or parents. As a consequence, many schools lack funding, good governance or parental support, with a detrimental impact on the quality of education they offer.

Many of these schools operate in remote rural areas, where income levels are low and tuition fees are often beyond the means of parents. To ensure the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of projects, the schools need to generate external income streams.

We have a community engagement approach – you need the whole community to participate to guarantee quality education in a sustainable manner.

That is why local communities lie at the heart of the Foundation’s strategy. “We have a community engagement approach – you need the whole community to participate to guarantee quality education in a sustainable manner. And also, once empowered, poor communities can take responsibility in their own hands. They might not be in a position to realize and develop it. So, they need that first push of empowerment,” says Händel. “The most sustainable solutions are those developed by the beneficiaries themselves. African problems require African solutions.”

In Malawi, for example, the Foundation has provided local community members, such as volunteer teachers or preschool committee members, with business and financial skills. It has also provided seed funding for a revolving fund at preschool level, which provides nano- credits to volunteer teachers as an incentive.

The interest rate has, at the same time, created a revenue stream for the preschools to invest in further improvements and maintenance. In 80% of the cases, preschools are able to pay back the seed money, which is used for further scaling of the initiative.

The Foundation only works directly with local NGOs to find solutions that are designed and implemented locally. The communities that benefit take a leading role in the improvement of the quality of education.

The Foundation’s work in Malawi is part of 10-year initiative in the country, made possible by a long-term partnership with Credit Suisse.

Measuring the Foundation’s long-term impact

Over the past 15 years, the Foundation has expanded its activities, working on the basis of an investment strategy and contracting external impact assessments. “Last year was special for us because our first eight-year strategy to help communities develop on multiple fronts came to an end and we achieved our ambitious goal of reaching one million children,” says Händel.

An external evaluation of the strategy’s long-term impact has confirmed its significant influence on general health outcomes, community participation and even business development in the targeted communities. The Foundation has also managed to break down cultural barriers between parents and schools, welcoming parental participation. The external evaluation has confirmed that education with a strong community engagement can lead to significant improvements in other areas, too.

Scaling up through political outreach

Starting in January, the Foundation will formally roll out its second multi-year strategy. Given the funding gaps in education and in particular in early learning in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is little need for a change in geographic focus. However, the organization wants to increase its systemic impact and also use innovative approaches including digital solutions to widen the scale of its projects and their impact on communities and regions. It will have a particular focus on early learning and a giving children a good start in primary school.

“Interventions in early childhood educations are always a package of measures,” says Händel. “It's never just about delivering a book or having good teachers. It's about having a child-friendly learning environment which is stimulating, safe and healthy, including a nutritious meal every day. There is an African proverb that says it needs a village to raise a child. The same is true of education. It needs everybody to provide an environment that is favorable for the child to be educated: parents, the community and the government.”

Beyond the benefits of better outcomes in education and related areas, the most powerful gift the foundation has given the children and families it supports is a new sense of self-belief. “A little push can really do wonders,” says Federer. “And we’re only at the beginning of what is to come for the Foundation”.

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Quality Control

Chas Edelstein, Senior Adviser at Credit Suisse, explains how innovative and more diverse sources of funding can help re-define the meaning of quality education

What will it take to disrupt education?

When you think about the disruption of any industry, it usually means better quality and lower cost. ‘Quality’ is such an important word here. It’s a word that few understand how to define in education. I think that organizations that help us to understand, define and identify quality in education will be highly valued in the future.

The way you think about setting standards of quality, and what it means to be approved and viewed as having quality, very much impact how education can be financed. Long-term, sustainable disruption in education will mean that the system sustains itself. That means the user of education, which is the employer, is willing to make an investment in educating their employees that's less than the benefit that they get in return. That's sustainable.

What needs to happen to make this a reality?

There is a natural limit to how much money can be donated. Having the education funded by the groups that benefit from it is unlimited. The more educated a workforce we have, the more productivity we have at the company, and the more money we have to support more talent. That's a virtuous cycle and a potential game changer.

How then do we assess the quality of education?

People think too much about putting money into a school and not enough about systemic change. Investment in a credible, independent assessor of education quality could really disrupt the system.

There need to be entities that designate quality, so you're sure that the schools are delivering good outcomes for students. That quality is likely to have more components of outcomes than it does currently. At present, there's a lot of components of input: what percentage of your professors have PhDs, etc., as opposed to outcomes: the success of the students, the learning that the students can gain from the process, the jobs that people gain.

Why is leadership so important in education?

Putting resources into building great leadership within our educational system has a multiplier effect. Take New Leaders, for example. It's a non-profit organization that takes people from both inside and outside the education sector, who want to devote themselves to leading schools. Leadership really, really matters: it sets up the systems, it hires the right teachers. Organizations that do a great job of developing human capital and human leadership in education are able to leverage resources effectively.

How have funding models of education changed?

Over the last few decades, there’s been a recognition that there are multiple potentially effective models of education. And there's a broad range of funding sources. When you think about these different buckets of capital, there are a number of models that look to blend public and private sources.

Can you give me an example?

Partnerships between businesses and non-profit entities, such as Purdue Global University, developed by Purdue and Kaplan in the US, reveal how collaboration can lead to greater impact. Kaplan has historically been a for-profit education company, but it has set up its online network in an effective way for students. It has developed numerous operations, including marketing. And Purdue is a terrific brand that symbolizes quality education, a good reputation, good professors – so that's the content. By coming together, they're melding their skills.

And you're seeing some efforts in Africa where the educational model is structured such that there can be loans for students where some of the loan losses can be covered by philanthropic contributions.

What gives you confidence about the future of education?

If you're looking for a hopeful experience, go to an education conference. You see young companies that have identified a need and filled it, like entrepreneurs do. Financial investors are interested in these companies. When the environment is right, when the barriers are lowered, that entrepreneurial creativity will flourish. And there is no doubt that there is thec capital to support it.

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