Fee-free university aims to build better nonprofits

Online platform Philanthropy University wants to boost the capacity of 5,000 nonprofits in the global south by 2020 – and improve the lives of 100 million people in the process

In 2014, Carla Reinagel and her husband Jon had an idea: to start a college in Mozambique that would empower local people with the skills to rise out of poverty.

“We were 29,” she laughs, “and completely clueless. Our only previous experience was in another organisation, where we had learned what not to do.”

Prior attempts to start social impact programmes had all fallen flat. But here, their path took a sharp turn. “I saw an ad on Facebook for free online classes for nonprofits,” she says, “and I was hooked.” 

The plan for the college fell through, but four years later, Equip Mozambique, the Reinagel’s nonprofit organisation that educates and trains Mozambicans through its library, training centre and mobile app, is gaining traction. Its sewing school now trains up to 60 widows a year; and its mobile learning app has expanded to 10 other countries and has had 53,000 downloads. 

A significant part of that success, says Carla, a US citizen who has lived in Mozambique for eight years, is down to the courses they took through Philanthropy University – an online platform that aims to strengthen nonprofits by providing free, expert courses for their leaders.  

The Rainagels are among more than 230,000 learners from 180 countries who have enrolled in Philanthropy University since it launched in 2015, funded by Saudi businessman and philanthropist Amr Al-Dabbagh.

For Al Dabbagh, whose UK-based Stars Foundation has long invested in amplifying the work of grassroots organisations, online learning was a way to scale that impact to a global audience, says Connor Diemand-Yauman, CEO of Philanthropy University.

“We wanted to build an organisation that would reimagine capacity building for the digital age. By strengthening local organisations, we felt we could transform global development from the ground up."

The platform relaunched in March with fresh content, and a new focus on targeting organisations in the global south, where, says Diemand-Yauman, “you see tremendous opportunity to ignite change.

“When you look at where the opportunities are to do the greatest good and meet the most pressing needs, it leads you to civil society organisations in the global south,” he explains. These organisations are “best-placed to deliver impact, but are typically horrifically under-resourced and underfunded – and that’s where we come in.”

Delivering the bite-size video tutorials on topics including ‘Essentials of Nonprofit Strategy’ and ‘Introduction to Fundraising’ are some of the sector’s top thinkers and development professionals. Each course breaks down into short segments delivered over several weeks, supported by assignments. Learners receive a certificate of completion for each module through a partnership with The Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. They also benefit from virtual communities, which connect students with peers in their region or sector.

By 2020, Philanthropy University hopes to have improved the lives of 100 million people through training hundreds of thousands of nonprofit leaders.

“I remember having my laptop in the kitchen, watching some of the lectures while fixing dinner for my family,” says Carla [pictured above right], who took courses in organisational capacity and fundraising.

“I liked the flexible format. There was no set time that I had to be online so I could watch the videos – or read the transcripts if our internet was too slow – and complete the assignments when I had time.” 

The ‘Scaling Social Impact’ and ‘Social Entrepreneurship’ modules also helped her to grow her sewing school from two ladies on borrowed sewing machines, to six spin-off schools training hundreds of Mozambican widows. 

“It showed us what we needed to consider in order to grow both deeper and wider,” Carla explains.

For Elvis Nshimba, a teacher at a school in Ville de Lubumbashi, DRC, founded by Malaika - a foundation set up by the former model Noella Coursaris - the courses have not only rerouted his career path, but stoked the success of one of Malaika’s most ambitious projects. 

“Before I learned the courses, I was just a teacher,” says Nshimba. On Coursaris’ recommendation, he enrolled in Philanthropy University, and was soon leading a Malaika initiative that focused on teaching women professional skills and financial literacy. 

“When I joined the project, there was no action plan,” he says. “Things were not going well and we were about to end the project because there were no results.” 

Courses in nonprofit essentials and scaling social impact helped him to turn things around. “I started asking, what is our roadmap? What are our indicators? I learned about how other organisations were using monitoring and evaluation and I took those strategies and applied them. Within three months, we saw the results.”

Now, Nshimba hopes to use the university’s online community to connect with other local leaders. “I want to share stories and experiences with other people. It’s a great opportunity to learn,” he says. 

Despite Philanthropy University’s potential, take-up in the Middle East and North Africa is still low, accounting for 2.25 per cent of total interest since the March relaunch. Of a sample of around 220,000 initial learners between 2015-2017, approximately 5 per cent were from MENA countries, though Diemand-Yauman says enrollment is rising in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.

In contrast, the platform sees significant engagement from Africa, India and Pakistan. A fifth of its learners are from Nigeria. 

“The common denominator initially,” says Diemand-Yauman, “is that these are some of the biggest English-speaking regions and where we see the highest concentration of civil society organisations.”

He is hopeful that the gradual shift in the Middle East towards more strategic giving will make the platform increasingly relevant to the region’s nonprofits.

“The largest investment in philanthropy in the MENA region is on education initiatives,” he says. “When you take that and the region’ new focus on measurability, we are actually at a great intersection for some of the needs there.”

“The ambition of our vision makes my head spin, but we see this as a movement”The platform continues to be funded principally by Saudi Arabia’s Al-Dabbagh Group. Additional support comes via a coalition of international NGOs, philanthropists and academia that are providing financial and in-kind contributions, including subject matter expertise, thought leadership and access to civil society.

Measuring the university's success is difficult. Its goal, after all, is to improve the way nonprofit leaders run their organisations, but many operate in challenging environments and with limited resources. Figuring out how to demonstrate that skills learned through the platform lead to better organisational outcomes is “a really tricky puzzle,” admits Diemand-Yauman. “Skill acquisition for an individual takes a long time. Measuring how those skills move the needle for an organisation takes even longer - we're talking years.”

But while the university's goal of having an impact on 100 million people by 2020 remains ambitious, he is confident its courses are helping nonprofit leaders to scale their impact.

 “Our focus is not just on supporting them in their work, but also on unleashing it such that they can spread it throughout the global south and north as well,” he says. “The ambition of our vision makes my head spin, but we see this as a movement. I’ve never been more confident that a better world is on the horizon for civil society.”