Over six years we created a high-touch program to help upgrade school districts. Learn how it evolved over time.
Categorizing our audience using quantitative and qualitative data was key to success.
It’s really hard to say no. To avoid mission creep, we asked ourselves two questions every time a new request came up.
At EducationSuperHighway, we knew we would need to work closely with school districts to help them upgrade, but with over 13,000 districts and a limited budget we needed to be creative in designing our direct service program. We started with high-touch engagements to understand district support needs, created a direct service program that addressed the highest points of leverage, and then introduced self-service tools that ultimately allowed us to get to scale.
Here were the key steps in our journey:
Initially, we thought our work with school districts would be highly technical – helping them figure out what equipment they had and what they needed to upgrade. We built an “Education Geek Squad,” consisting of three network engineers who visited districts to look at their Wi-Fi closets, offer advice, and document pain points. But as we learned more about the K-12 broadband ecosystem, we found that most school districts were already getting technical support from a network of Value Added Resellers (VARs). On the other hand, school district staff struggled with writing requests for proposals (RFPs), finding alternative Internet service provider options, and applying for funding from the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program. They didn’t need us to provide technical support; they needed help running effective procurement processes.
Once we understood what school districts needed, the next step was to figure out the most effective and scalable way to address those issues. We started by going through the procurement and E-rate process with a few dozen school districts and found that helping them write good RFPs, recruit service providers to bid on those RFPs, and coaching them through the early stages of the E-rate funding process was most impactful. We also learned that a big part of our value-add was simply convincing districts they could upgrade within their existing broadband budgets.
We knew we couldn’t rely on bespoke consulting engagements if we wanted to drive upgrades at scale. Instead, we needed to create “self-service” resources that focused on the key points of leverage we had identified. We built three key resources:
Together, these resources addressed the key issues that were resulting in suboptimal broadband procurement outcomes for school districts and dramatically reduced the amount of time we needed to spend supporting districts. We had programs that could scale; now we had to get school districts to use them.
To reach school districts at scale, we partnered with state departments of education. They sent emails to school district leadership informing them of our programs and endorsing us as a partner to help them upgrade. This created awareness and some school districts reached out to us for help. Unfortunately, we only met about 25% of our goal for upgrades. The problem wasn’t our ability to help those that reached out – our program design and “self-service” resources allowed a single consultant to support dozens of school districts successfully. What was holding us back was that not enough school districts were taking action based on marketing alone. We needed to start selling. At the end of the year, we piloted an “inside sales” strategy to engage with school districts. It worked, but we realized that we needed to retool our direct service team to implement this sales strategy at scale.
In preparation for the next school year, we began adding less technical people with sales and outreach experience to our direct service team. We developed call scripts and sales collateral and reoriented our marketing toward supporting a “sales” process (our programs were all still free). We also implemented Salesforce so we could track the status of our outreach to each school district and the objections we were encountering as we tried to convince them to move forward. Finally, we transitioned our technical and E-rate experts to second-level support roles focused on helping our less technical direct service team members. This allowed us to significantly accelerate our hiring by reducing the need for technical skills while ensuring that our new consultants were still effective at helping school districts upgrade.
This one-to-many approach proved to be a successful way to scale our work. At its peak, our direct service team of 15 consultants supported over 2,200 school district upgrades.
To achieve true scale, nonprofits need to minimize the human resources required to deliver their direct service programs to the people or organizations they are trying to help. As our experience demonstrates, this is possible if you:
With more than 13,000 public school districts serving nearly 50 million students, we knew we would not be able to offer individual upgrade support to every school district. In order to scale our work, we needed to categorize school districts based on the type of support they needed so that we could limit the direct service resources applied to each district.
How did we determine which school districts to support? How did we design programs and tools to tailor our support? And how did we match school districts with solutions that would meet their needs?
The answers were all rooted in data-driven segmentation that allowed us to categorize school districts and match them with the right type of support and solutions. Without this segmentation – an approach we called targeting – we would not have been successful in closing the classroom connectivity gap.
The data we had collected for each school district told us a story about that district’s connectivity status, and that connectivity status helped to define the type of intervention that would help that district meet baseline bandwidth and infrastructure goals.
School districts fell into three main categories:
Our targeting logic also helped us design solutions or interventions to help school districts upgrade their connectivity. The targeting enabled us to:
We leveraged target lists not only to improve our own operations, but also to leverage the help of other stakeholders. State departments of education, for example, relied on our data about specific school districts to target their own resources. Governors and legislatures approved state funding programs in over 20 states largely because our data made clear the size of the problem and the resources required to solve it. Targeting also allowed us to engage more effectively with the service provider community; we could point to gaps in service and rally the vendor community around addressing those gaps.
In the beginning, we relied on one-off queries and spreadsheets to generate our constantly changing list of targets. As our work scaled from a handful of districts to a handful of states to the entire country, we needed to automate this process.
With Salesforce, we used targeting to create customer segments that informed our marketing strategy and account owner approaches. And with Tableau, we created powerful visualizations of progress across different segments so that we could identify key barriers, trends, and opportunities for improvement.
Throughout our 8-year journey, our target lists shrank as school districts upgraded, and today we can say that the classroom connectivity gap is closed. Targeting enabled us to identify which schools needed support and how to support them, to be efficient with our own resources and empower our stakeholders to do the same.
No matter what problem your organization is trying to solve, your “audience” will be much larger than your staff. To create systemic change, you will need to scale your work; a one-to-one approach won’t be effective. We recommend:
EducationSuperHighway was established to fix one problem: insufficient broadband in America’s K-12 public schools. We gave ourselves eight years to complete our mission, making it extremely important to avoid “scope creep.” With a constant stream of requests from funders, policymakers, and other key stakeholders to take on additional challenges, we used two strategies to ensure we hit our timeline. First, we viewed every request through the lens of our mission – if it wasn’t necessary to bring high-speed broadband to schools, we didn’t do it. Second, we adopted a mantra: “if you can’t measure it, don’t do it.” Together, these strategies kept us focused and resulted in completing our mission a year ahead of schedule.
It’s really hard to say no, but to avoid scope creep we had to make some tough calls. Districts asked us to help with devices, states asked us to help with home broadband, and foreign governments asked us to take our model abroad. In each case, the need was compelling, funding was attached, and we had the expertise to take on the problem. However, when we asked ourselves whether saying yes to each request would move us closer to completing our mission, the answer was always no. Although we declined requests to expand our scope, we always shared our knowledge and tools whenever possible. By being transparent about our need to focus on our mission and 2020 end-date, we were able to say ‘no’ with good reason.
One of the most important facets to our work was our ability to measure our progress against our mission annually. Using data from the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program, we were able to see the broadband infrastructure in nearly every K-12 public school. This allowed us to focus our work on the schools that still needed to be upgraded and develop programs that met the needs of those schools.
In 2017, we were asked to consider expanding our programs to non-traditional K-12 schools – specifically charter and Bureau of Indian Education schools. This fit with our mission, but after some initial pilots we realized that because so many of these schools chose not to participate in the E-rate program, we didn’t have data on where they stood and wouldn’t be able to figure out where to focus our resources. Without the ability to measure progress, we couldn’t commit to upgrading these schools as part of our mission. However, because the work was “on-mission” we offered these schools access to our self-service tools and provided upgrade consulting to any that requested our support.
With only eight years to accomplish our mission, we knew we would not be able to work directly with every public school district in America. Beyond just the time constraint, our small team was working simultaneously on advocacy and expanding data transparency. To scale our work, we leveraged marketing, one-to-many resources, and self-service tools.
Here’s how we went from working one-on-one with school districts to implementing a one-to-many approach:
For every state we worked in, we formed cross-functional working groups of team members with expertise in marketing, analytics, state engagement, and project management. These working groups often included external members from state departments of education as well. Internally, our groups were comprised of:
We also created an overarching cross-functional “Programs Team” that was responsible for continually improving our programs and sharing what was working across our team of consultants. This team, comprised of marketing, analytics, partnerships, and project management staff, focused on tracking progress against our overall goals and identifying resources to help consultants achieve their individual objectives. The team regularly reviewed data to learn what efforts were successful and where consultants were running into roadblocks. Armed with this understanding, they then developed solutions and quickly rolled them out to our consulting and cross-functional teams.
As we scaled to working with school districts in all 50 states, we used Salesforce as a project management tool to track key activity metrics and milestone progress, and create dashboards that made this data available throughout the organization. At our peak, our District Project Management Team of 15 people completed individual consulting with more than 2,200 districts. We were able to manage the increase in workload without adding more staff because we had taken the time to set up automated systems that tracked progress to goals and conveyed the impact of our short-term and long-term initiatives.
By investing in price transparency tools and sharing various templates, resources, and training materials, many school districts were able to self-serve rather than rely on our district consultants for upgrade support. These tools and resources helped us serve school districts who needed minimal help without having to distract from serving our priority districts.
To get the word out about these self-service tools, our marketing team created targeted district email campaigns with links to our price-transparency tool, webinars, and various broadband resources. We also invested in social media and content marketing with Google Ads to ensure wider reach.
In order to move hundreds of school districts to faster broadband speeds, we prioritized and fostered a number of one-to-many partnerships to scale our impact:
From 2016-2019, we went from working with only a handful of school districts to thousands across America. Our various one-to-many approaches allowed us to dramatically accelerate our impact without spending dramatically more money, over-hiring, or extending our end date. If you are looking to scale your impact, we suggest:
For some, it’s the “last mile.” For others, it’s the “longest yard.” For EducationSuperHighway, getting from 98% to our goal of 99% of schools and students connected to high-speed broadband proved to be a significant challenge. Getting across the finish line required going back to the drawing board in our final year and designing entirely new programmatic approaches from scratch. Here are the ways we changed our teams and tactics to successfully complete our mission.
When our organization began, approximately 23,000 of the 73,000 K-12 public schools in the U.S. needed broadband infrastructure upgrades, and 43M of the 47M students did not have enough Internet bandwidth (according to FCC guidelines). We started out working with a handful of school districts, and then school districts across a few states, and eventually scaled up to working with thousands of school districts across all 50 states.
Scaling up our work did not simply mean hiring more people. At our peak, a team of 15 consultants were supporting over 2,200 school district upgrades. Our approaches to scale included refining and automating our project management tools, deploying cross-functional teams to partner with state education and technology leaders, creating self-service tools like webinars, and automating email campaigns. We created and leveraged a one-size-fits-most approach that proved to be successful as a means to scale.
As we scaled our work, we made great progress: by 2019, more than 22,000 of the 23,000 schools had upgraded their Internet infrastructure and 46.3 million of the 47 million students were now meeting the FCC’s connectivity goal. Although we had completed our mission, there were still over 700,000 students in need of upgrades. These school districts faced a unique set of challenges, including:
We knew from experience that challenges like these were not insurmountable – we had upgraded many schools in the exact same situation. But convincing these schools to upgrade required us to understand – and help the districts overcome – these unique challenges. We now needed to shift our approach from scaling to precision. This meant:
To effectively support the last one percent, we had to evolve from a marketing-driven, cross-functional consulting team to a sales-driven team. Instead of one-size-fits-most solutions, we needed individualized plans of action for each school district. Up to that point we had relied on top-down approaches, partnering with state departments of education to support as many districts as possible. Because each consultant had 100+ school districts to support, their role focused on making the most efficient use of only a limited number of interactions with each project district.
Additionally, while our services were free of charge, we still needed to implement sales strategies to convince these remaining districts to invest in broadband infrastructure. Rather than hiring salespeople, we decided to train our consultants to expand their skill set to encompass sales strategies and develop their capability and confidence in that role. We effectively transformed our consultants into Account Owners. We invested in Sales Enablement Trainings, which expanded upon modern sales philosophies outlined in Daniel Pink’s book, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. Even though our services were not a commodity to sell, the training helped us apply modern sales philosophies to create specific value propositions for each remaining school district.
To ensure the success of our newly minted sales team, we focused on:
All the work we had done in the first six years of scaling up our programs helped us navigate this organizational change.
Reinventing our team and reimagining our approach were significant undertakings. But the results proved our effort worthwhile. At the conclusion of our final year, we exceeded our goal of 99%.
99.3% of K-12 schools now have a scalable Internet connection and 99.6% of students are now meeting the FCC’s minimum connectivity goal.
If you need to radically change how you work in order to follow through on your commitments, we suggest: