Organizational Operations

The day-to-day of running a nonprofit is the real work. You need to find the people, passion, money, and tools to make it work every day. We gathered some good lessons along the way on fundraising, hiring mission-driven people, and why a finite goal can help you align for impact.

The Beginning

Founding
EducationSuperHighway

Founding
Story

A coincidence led Evan Marwell to take on the challenge of starting EducationSuperHighway and closing the school connectivity gap.

Fundraising Tips to Help Maximize your Impact

Similar to startups, we fundraised in sprints using key milestones. Consider how you could apply this approach to your fundraising model.

How Setting A Finite Goal Accelerated Our Success

We had one finite goal that guided every project, hire, and dollar spent. Learn the benefits of this approach, and considerations for setting a finite goal.

Why A Designer Should Be One of Your First Hires

When you are trying to convince funders and partners to work with you, having professionally designed materials will give you that extra confidence to make your case.

Leadership & Management

Empowering our Leaders to Lead

Learn how we worked to intentionally develop our leadership team so that we could empower our organization and achieve our mission.

Connecting Organizational Silos

Silos happen in every organization, but we made an intentional effort to break them down early and often. Here are three ways we improved communication across teams.

Hiring for Talent And Passion

Mission alignment was just as important as skills and experiences during our hiring process. See how we looked for and fostered mission alignment.

Part 1: Starting At the End

Our sunset occurred in three phases over three years. The first phase focused on board approval, leadership alignment, and financial planning.

Part 2: The Middle of the Road

In year two of our sunsetting process, we learned a lot about the time, detailed planning, and communication required to effectively close our nonprofit.

Part 3: The Final
Chapter

The last year of our organization was spent executing our plan. We discovered eight critical pieces to closing down in a thoughtful and effective way.

Culture

Living Our Values

Hear from our staff at EducationSuperHighway how we committed to our values and made them a part of our daily work.

A Team Committed to The Mission

If you have a team committed to your mission, you can only do better. See how we looked for those attributes while hiring.

Investing In Professional Development

By investing heavily in professional and career development, we met our retention goals and set up our team members for success in their next job.

Founding EducationSuperHighway

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Evan Marwell_ESH Headshot

In 2011, our CEO Evan Marwell was looking for his next project — something that would allow him to use his background and skills to create meaningful change. One day, his daughter told him that her school’s Internet connection was so bad that her class could not complete a required online video assignment. He asked himself, “How can this be possible in a private school located in the technology capital of the world? And if it’s that bad in San Francisco, how bad is it in the rest of the country?”

By coincidence, Evan was invited to a January 2012 meeting at the White House to talk about How to make America better with technology. Based on his daughter’s experience, he decided to do some research on the state of broadband in America’s K-12 schools. While he didn’t find much, he did find an FCC survey that claimed 80% of schools had inadequate Internet service. Armed with that data, he decided to raise the issue of school broadband during his trip to Washington, D.C.

At the White House, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States challenged Evan to solve the K-12 broadband problem. He also told him about the FCC’s E-rate program, a $2.4 billion annual funding source that subsidizes school broadband. Once Evan realized that there was already dedicated funding through the E-rate program for school Internet and he wouldn’t have to invent a new funding source, he recognized that he had the ability to tackle this problem and decided to take on the mission of upgrading America’s K-12 schools.

Evan established EducationSuperHighway in January of 2012 with the goal of closing the K-12 classroom connectivity gap by 2020.

Listen to the full story on the Gimlet: Without Fail podcast.

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Fundraising tips to help maximize your impact

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EducationSuperHighway took a unique approach to fundraising in support of our mission to upgrade America’s K-12 schools. Most nonprofits create a fundraising pipeline to forecast how much philanthropic support they think they can raise each year and then build their operating plan within that constraint. We flipped that model on its head and started with the outcomes, or milestones, we wanted to achieve. Then we determined how much funding we needed to deliver those outcomes. Our milestone-based fundraising approach was a game changer in how we pitched funders, the amount of time and resources we had to dedicate to fundraising, the effectiveness of our programmatic work, and, ultimately, the willingness of donors to write big checks in support of our mission.

What is milestone-based fundraising?

Milestones are significant and often pivotal achievements in an organization’s journey to accomplishing its mission and goals. A milestone can be anything from a policy change to a product launch or even a key hire.

With this fundraising approach, you raise the funding you need to achieve your next set of milestones, and then use that success as a proof point to motivate funders to award additional grants.

Our founder and CEO borrowed this fundraising approach from the tech startup world. Entrepreneurs begin by obtaining investors’ agreement on the next set of milestones for the company and then creating a budget to achieve them. This allows investors to make a calculated bet on the company knowing the results that their investment should deliver. Similarly, EducationSuperHighway started by getting funders excited about our next set of milestones and then laid out what it would cost to achieve them.

Clean-slate budgeting based on outcomes

Many nonprofits plan their programs and budget their resources according to what’s in their fundraising pipelines. Whether or not they can do a new project or reach a new audience hinges on how much funding they expect to receive.

We took a completely different approach. We worked backwards from what we wanted to achieve and assessed what we needed to make it happen for years to come. We asked:

By starting with what we wanted to achieve – rather than what resources were available to us – we didn’t allow funding to limit our ambitions and were able to get funders out of the “renewal” frame of mind that often limits the amount they are willing to give.

Multi-year fundraising sprints

Based on our clean-slate budgeting, we modeled our annual expenses and estimated the amount of funding needed to achieve each set of milestones two to three years in advance. That way, we could approach funders with a single request for funding that would serve us for multiple years at a time.

We launched four concerted fundraising efforts over eight years tied to the following milestones:

  1. Identify the root causes of the K-12 broadband problem and develop a business plan to upgrade America’s schools.
  2. Collect data on classroom connectivity, pilot initial programs to upgrade schools, and catalyze policy reform.
  3. Scale data collection, improve upgrade programs, and achieve policy change.
  4. Upgrade 99% of schools and engage governors to drive K-12 broadband upgrades.

 

Each of these fundraising efforts took place over a three-month period as we approached the completion of our current milestones. By consolidating our fundraising efforts into short sprints, we were able to dramatically reduce the amount of time we spent fundraising and eliminated the need for a development team.

Benefits of milestone fundraising
  1. Decreased fundraising time and cost. Fundraising in four specific rounds resulted in our CEO spending approximately 5-10% of his time fundraising. This is dramatically less than most nonprofit leaders who must allocate 50-75% of their time to fundraising. In addition, by fundraising in sprints tied to milestones, we were able to raise $60 million without a development team.

  2. Improved operating flexibility. By fundraising for two to three year periods, we gained budgeting flexibility, which helped us adapt our spending to what was working and cut the things that no longer made sense.

  3. Ability to make early, strategic hires. Multi-year funding visibility gave us the confidence to hire the top talent we needed.

  4. Stability for talent. Fundraising in rounds helped us hire, retain, and develop our team members, who could then focus on programmatic work without worrying about the future of our funding.

How to apply milestone fundraising to your organization
  1. Create a vision. We invited investors to think beyond connecting schools. Instead, we asked them to think about creating the foundation for the next generation of digital learning. Conceptualizing the work as a small part of a larger societal change helped us align and organize around a common goal.

  2. Write your business plan. In anticipation of our first significant fundraising round, we:
    – Researched the school connectivity landscape.
    – Identified root causes of the connectivity gap.
    – Pinpointed potential solutions.

    These efforts helped us map the scope of the challenge and show that it was solvable, which made it much more attractive for early-stage investors to invest.

  3. Identify key milestones.Milestone fundraising depends on identifying compelling milestones that funders will view as making significant progress. Your milestones also need to be measurable so that everyone can agree when they have been achieved.

  4. Leverage data.We invested heavily in leveraging data to drive our mission. When it came to fundraising, our data gave funders confidence that we could measure our progress toward the milestones we had agreed upon. It also powered our advocacy work – something that was key for foundations eager to fund policy change.

  5. Find organizational fits.Foundations and grant-making organizations have issue areas and strategies that they are particularly invested in. Early-stage funders are more likely to have a broad array of interests and take a risk on nonprofits and their leaders if they believe they can make an impact. However, foundations doling out large sums of capital often want to focus their efforts more closely on their preferred issue areas. As nonprofits request larger sums of capital, it’s important to find a fit with the foundations. Do your homework about which funders align with your mission and figure out if your problem-solving strategies align. If they do, it’s more likely that your pitch will resonate with them and your organizations will work well together long-term.

  6. Make bold asks.Systemic changes don’t happen with a few dollars. Position your ask around your vision, and start broad to give yourself room for changes in direction and strategy. For example, instead of specifically saying, “We’re planning on building a price transparency tool to help schools get access to better Internet pricing,” we explained our larger vision for data transparency as a means to lowering the cost of school Internet.

Note: A key to asking for flexible funding also involves up-front conversations about learning as you go. Be open to modifying your plans and ideas on how you can change course if things are not going as planned.

Milestone-based fundraising can be used by virtually any nonprofit to change the fundraising conversation to one focused on outcomes. For some organizations, it may only make sense in the context of major gifts or one-time campaigns. However, based on our success with raising money in outcome-based sprints, we believe that milestone fundraising could open opportunities for many more nonprofits to achieve the scale needed to solve important challenges facing society today.

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How setting a finite goal accelerated our success

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We started EducationSuperHighway in 2012 with a clear objective: connect the approximately 13,000 K-12 public school districts in the United States to high-speed broadband – by 2020. We didn’t know how we were going to achieve our goal, but we knew it was achievable, measurable, and finite.

Having a finite goal accelerated our progress toward completing our mission. It allowed us to avoid mission creep, made decision-making easier throughout the organization, enabled us to hire the best people, and persuaded funders to make large investments in our work. It was such a powerful enabler of our success that we believe every organization should consider defining their mission in the context of a finite goal.

The benefits of a finite goal

Avoiding mission creep

One of the biggest dilemmas facing social impact organizations is the constant pressure to increase the scope of your work in order to secure funding. At EducationSuperHighway, a number of our funders and potential funders encouraged us to expand the scope of our mission during the fundraising process. Could you extend your price transparency work to devices? Can you address the lack of home Internet access for students? Will you bring your work to Brazil? While these were fair questions, we chose to stay focused on our singular and finite goal – even when it meant sacrificing additional funding. As a result, we completed our mission a year ahead of schedule.

Improving decision-making

Effective decision-making is critical to keeping an organization moving forward. Without it, staff can get stuck or, even worse, head in the wrong direction. For eight years, our finite goal provided a north star for everyone in the organization. Whenever we needed to make a decision, we would ask ourselves, “How will this help us achieve 99%?” Strategically, this helped us make key programmatic decisions, prioritize resources, and evaluate the success of our various partnerships. On a day-to-day basis, it enabled us to more effectively delegate decision-making to our staff, knowing that they were clear about how their work related to our goal.

Attracting great talent

While many nonprofits offer prospective candidates the opportunity to work on a problem, we offered the possibility of solving a problem. This helped us attract highly qualified candidates who were interested in clearly seeing how they will contribute and what their work will accomplish.

Our finite goal also attracted many “tour of duty” candidates, people with successful careers in the private sector who wanted to work on a cause they were passionate about. These individuals were not interested in making a permanent transition to the nonprofit sector, and our finite goal – and plan to sunset once we achieved it – made them comfortable that there would be a natural point to return to the private sector. This greatly expanded the pool of candidates we had available to us at every level – from people just starting their careers, to more senior talent who could immediately step into leadership roles.

Accelerating fundraising

Having a finite goal also enabled us to transform our approach to fundraising and dramatically reduced the amount of time and resources we spent to meet our development goals. Instead of pitching programs, we were pitching measurable results; this allowed us to be more aggressive about asking for longer duration, general operating grants. And because donors recognized that there would be an end to our mission (and the requests for funding), they were willing to make larger grants sooner. As a result, we were able to raise over $60 million in our first four years (we were then fully funded) with no development team and our CEO spending less than 10% of his time on fundraising. You can learn more about our milestone-based fundraising approach.

Setting a finite goal for your organization

We recognize that not every nonprofit is set up to address a single, solvable problem. However, we do believe that most organizations can define their missions as time-limited, finite goals. One approach is to limit the scope of your work geographically (e.g., addressing homelessness in Oakland) or to a specific set of beneficiaries (e.g., ensuring undocumented workers have access to healthcare). Another is to focus on a specific, highly leveraged problem that can enhance the ability of others to address the needs of your target population (e.g., ensuring community health centers have back-up power so they can get access to free medicines that require refrigeration). And once you achieve your first finite goal, if you, your team, and your funders are inspired to keep going, you can always set another one.

Here are the key characteristics of a finite goal:
  1. It is time-bound. Define your goal as something that you believe can be accomplished in 10 years or less.
  2. It is simple. Everyone should be able to immediately understand what you are trying to accomplish when they hear your mission and be able to see how they can help accomplish the goal.
  3. It is measurable. In order to reap the benefits of a finite goal, you have to be able to measure your progress toward it and report on it to other stakeholders.
  4. It is achievable. You may not know exactly how you are going to achieve your goal but you have limited the scope of the problem in a way that makes sense given your timeframe and the resources you think you can attract to the mission.
  5. It is inspiring. People easily understand the impact achieving your finite goal will have and want to support it with their time, talent, and treasure.
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Why a designer should be one of your first hires

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When EducationSuperHighway began our mission, we were a small team that no one had ever heard of trying to convince policymakers, national advocacy organizations, school district leaders, and service providers to work with us. To be successful, we had to convince them of our legitimacy.

Design was our secret weapon. There is real truth to the idea that first impressions matter – and often, our first impression was through a document, PowerPoint, or web page. As a result, our CEO made a decision to hire a graphic designer early on. Rather than outsourcing website and collateral design, which would have forced us to decide whether to spend the money on design every time, hiring a full-time designer meant everything would be strategically and meticulously designed. Our designer:

  • Created a professional brand that helped us establish our legitimacy and credibility with stakeholders.
  • Added design elements to all of our collateral and external communications – making our work look more professional.
  • Ensured visual consistency across all communications and collateral materials.
  • Enhanced the effectiveness of our collateral and website by increasing click-throughs and open rates.

 

Having a designer on staff helped us establish and maintain the credibility and legitimacy we needed to engage our stakeholders, accomplish our goals, and communicate our successes. By hiring a designer early and integrating them into all your external communications, you can make design a secret weapon for your organization too.

 
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Empowering our leaders to lead

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As with the rest of the organization, our leadership team evolved over time, with several inflection points, individuals, and decisions that were ultimately critical to our success. By investing in our leaders both individually and as a group, we became better equipped to navigate complex challenges, make strategic decisions, and even wind down operations.

The early days

When we were just starting as an organization, we didn’t have an official leadership team. Instead we had 11 senior leaders (about half our staff), all of whom had valuable input and a desire to be part of the decision-making process. Our CEO believed it was important for everyone’s voice to be heard, but as we entered a new phase of growth we realized we needed to establish a smaller leadership team that could accelerate the pace of decision-making. Our transition began when we hired a Chief of Staff, who joined the organization with fresh eyes and a mandate to rethink our leadership structure and processes.

Ground rules for success

Diagnose the challenges

Our new Chief of Staff conducted research and interviews to understand what we could do to improve our leadership structure, processes, and culture. Some things were obvious. We had far too many people in the decision-making room and our meeting agendas and goals were not well articulated. Other challenges were more subtle. Our historical methods of communicating with our staff were no longer effective as the organization grew and we needed to develop trust among our newly established leadership team.

Start at the top

Our Chief of Staff worked closely with our CEO to initiate changes from the top; his support was key in the reinvention of the leadership vision. It was important to our CEO that the people responsible for driving outcomes at the organization were equipped to do their best work and leverage each other’s expertise. On top of that, he wanted all members of the leadership team to feel a sense of ownership of the organization and the decisions, not just that they were reporting to him to check a box.

Pick a framework and put it in motion

We implemented a framework from The Table Group, and adopted strategies from books such as The 5 Dysfunctions of a TeamIdeal Team Player, and The Advantage. We started having daily check-ins to create team cohesion, and weekly meetings to discuss obstacles and determine coordination points. A professional coach worked with our leaders one-on-one to help them make changes, get feedback along the way, and hold each other accountable. We also did a lot of work to understand our bad habits. As the size of the leadership team shrank and we started to hone in on who should be in the room, we started to see better clarity and purpose.

Build trust

Trust developed more easily with a smaller group of people because we could openly talk about difficult topics. A lot of our progress came from learning to talk less and listen more. This translated into how we approached the rest of the organization and our commitment to making sure people felt heard and supported. As our CEO said, “If you can develop trust on the team and make space for everyone to have their voice heard, it is exponentially more effective.”

Time and maintenance

We invested a lot of time to make sure our leaders were working well together to get the organization closer toward our goals. Every Monday, our leadership team met for two hours to focus on program priorities. For goal setting, larger strategic decisions, and planning, we held full-day offsites once per quarter. Finally, we met individually throughout the week to ensure nothing slipped through the cracks.

Results 
  1. The model lasted. As one of our leaders said, “The model stood the test of turnover.” When a senior leader did leave the organization, the framework we’d put in place made it easy to onboard a new leader and ensured that the organization’s progress was not impacted.

  2. We set clear priorities to accelerate programmatic success. The north star of the organization was to connect 99% of schools to high-speed Internet. Achieving that goal was made easier by a very clear prioritization among leadership of what the team needed to accomplish and the ability to quickly resolve any organizational obstacles that arose. Without that strong leadership vision and commitment to the larger goal, we wouldn’t have been as successful.

  3. We made decisions more quickly. By establishing deep trust among our leadership team members, we were able to have the hard conversations that tough decisions require. We embraced conflict in the room, made sure everyone’s voice was heard, then came together once a decision had been made.

  4. We communicated more effectively with staff. The end of every leadership meeting focused on what we needed to communicate to the organization and how we would do it. This made sure that everyone in the organization was hearing the same things and eliminated the confusion that can sap the productivity of organizations.

Advice for other leadership teams

  1. There is no right or wrong way to do it, as long as you’re doing it. There is no shortage of research and models out there on how to build a strong leadership team. Pick one, bring in an expert to help you get started, and then make it your own over time by adapting the model to what works for your team.

  2. People want to be part of a good team. The ones you want on your team will be willing to work for it – including having the hard discussions that are needed to address issues getting in the way of building trust.

  3. It starts at the top. Our founder and CEO made a point to speak last during meetings, so he could hear everyone’s opinion before they knew where he stood. This was an effective strategy for building trust and making sure all voices were heard.

  4. Different leadership styles help prevent groupthink and feedback loops. Visionary leaders can complement those who are more tactical and process-oriented, and vice-versa.

  5. It’s OK to pause. Our founder and CEO would often say, “Let’s sleep on it” after discussing a big idea or brainstorm. We always wanted to move fast, but sometimes the best decisions come when people are given a chance to reflect on a discussion.

  6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Leadership is all about communication. Allocate enough time to planning and executing effective communication with your staff.

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Connecting organizational silos

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At the beginning of 2012, EducationSuperHighway had seven employees. By 2016, we had 77 people working on all kinds of projects, across multiple teams: data collection, data analysis, partner outreach, engineering, marketing, and more.

As we made more and more progress, we discovered flaws in our internal communication systems that created silos. Sometimes we were duplicating work or missing out on opportunities to use effective strategies other teams were employing. While we never managed to get rid of silos completely, we were able to recognize and address the problems they created.

Here are three effective silo-bridging strategies that helped us foster communication both among and across teams.

Cross-functional working groups

We assembled several cross-functional working groups that met once per week to manage and prioritize data, communications, and legislative requests from our partners. These meetings were also opportunities to gain regular insight into what was happening in the field. Those insights then informed our larger marketing and communications efforts, as well as state-level policy.

WHAT WORKED FOR US:

Weekly meetings helped us hold each other accountable. Slack channels opened communication and stored important documents. By including members of various teams in the cross-functional working groups, these forums became easy outlets to share information, ask for help, and limit the amount of redundant work teams were doing.

WHAT WE LEARNED TO DO BETTER OVER TIME:

Although we gained more visibility and foresight into other teams’ work through these cross-organizational working groups, we realized that we needed more forums to continue to share knowledge and connect with one another. We began to expand those efforts amongst and across working groups. We also began to host monthly meetings with leaders from each of the working groups to share progress and upcoming priorities.

Thematic goals

One of the hardest things for an organization is to be very specific about the definition of success. One way that we made sure that every person in the organization was aligned was to use thematic goals. We used quarterly thematic goals (a concept derived from Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage) to focus everyone in our organization on one set of projects and goals over a three to four month period. These goals were developed by our leadership team and shared ahead of time, so everyone knew what they were working on and how their projects fit in with the overarching org-wide goal.

WHAT WORKED FOR US:

Having a strong, cohesive leadership team that invested the time up front to develop and communicate our organizational goals was critical to our success. Working towards clearly articulated goals helped everyone understand their roles and focus their efforts. It also helped make sure everyone felt connected to our mission because they knew how their work was making a difference.

WHAT WE LEARNED TO DO BETTER OVER TIME:

Our thematic goals evolved to make sure that we were defining success very clearly with specific goals and outcomes. Having the leadership team introduce and explain the goals during all-staff meetings fostered greater understanding and buy-in. This meant that everyone knew what exactly we were trying to accomplish in the next few months and how we would achieve that.
Design sprints

A design sprint is a time-constrained, five-phase process that answers critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. For our design sprints, we assembled small teams with representatives from various stakeholder groups across the organization. While our sprints were generally led by engineers, we used them as opportunities to gain creative ideas, support, and input from individuals who wouldn’t normally work together.

WHAT WORKED FOR US:

Design sprints helped us see the value in cross-functional, multi-level teams generating ideas and making decisions together. The sprints let us test new ideas, get feedback, and move quickly to develop new solutions.
 

WHAT WE LEARNED TO DO BETTER OVER TIME:

We found that preparation was essential for a successful design sprint. That preparation included getting strategic support from our leadership team, planning stakeholder meetings in advance, and making sure our team members were on board to solve these challenging problems.
 

Even with an open office space and an organization with fewer than 100 people, we learned that silos are inevitable. As projects become more complicated and teams become busier, it is critical that leaders assess the organization’s ability to maintain efficient and open lines of communication. While it may be impossible to get rid of silos completely, we recommend thinking through the examples and solutions mentioned above to build a more collaborative and cohesive team to advance towards your goals.

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Hiring for talent and passion

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Everyone knows that people are the key to building a successful organization. As a nonprofit competing for talent in the San Francisco Bay Area, we had to develop an innovative hiring strategy to get the people we needed to accomplish our mission. Our approach included committing significant resources to the hiring process from day one, developing talent from within for our technical teams, and recruiting people who were truly mission-driven. To build our incredible team, we did the following:

Hired an experienced professional to get the process started

One of our earliest hires was a Chief Operating Officer with experience getting startups up and running. Her number one job was to take the lead on hiring. Our staff was small during our first few years, so she focused on hiring employees for multifaceted roles, the virtuoso generalists we needed in our fast-paced environment.

Prioritized commitment to the mission

As our work grew, we needed people with more specialized skills to work on larger teams in separate work streams.

Initially, we sought out talent in the for-profit sector. We hired people with the right skills, but realized they lacked full commitment to our mission of connecting public schools to broadband. As a result, our turnover rate was higher than we’d hoped. Once we started vetting candidates for both their skillsets and their desire to be inspired by meaningful work, our retention rate increased dramatically.

Re-thought technical hiring

In our search for top technical talent, we found ourselves competing with giant Bay Area tech companies for software engineers and analysts. Being a nonprofit, we couldn’t possibly offer the same compensation as Google or Facebook.

To create a talented team of analysts and engineers, we took a new approach. We started by hiring experienced technical leaders for our teams — we specifically looked for ability and desire to train and develop a team. We then hired the rest of the team — primarily recent graduates of developer bootcamps with little to no technical work experience — and invested the time it took to develop them into experienced, productive engineers. We did the same for our analyst team. There, the vast majority of our staff started as data quality analysts and were given the training they needed in SQL, Tableau, and other tools to become data analysts.

As our VP of Software Engineering explained, “We hired for a person’s characteristics and their ability to deal with ambiguity. We were less concerned with their work experience. As a nonprofit, if you hire based on a candidate’s character, commitment to the mission, and good culture fit, you can build a great team of people who will stay with you rather than chase higher salaries and stock options.”

Hired a full-time recruiter when we were ready to scale our team

After our success driving policy change, it was time to scale up our program teams so we could help states and schools use the newly available resources to upgrade. In less than three years, we nearly tripled our staff to over 70 people. To accomplish this, we took a page out of the for-profit world’s hiring playbook and hired our own full-time recruiter. She developed our recruiting brand, dramatically increased our social media presence, and leveraged LinkedIn to build an exceptional team. Without this dedicated, on-staff hiring resource, achieving our mission would have been incredibly difficult.

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Sunsetting insights part 1: Starting at the end

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EducationSuperHighway started with an end in mind. Our goal was to upgrade the Internet access in 99% of the public school classrooms in America — so that every student had the opportunity to take advantage of the promise of digital learning — and then close our doors.

By the fall of 2017, with 94% of school districts connected to high-speed broadband, we were confident that we would complete our mission by the start of the 2020-21 school year. We then began to envision and plan for how we would close our doors. The sunsetting process we undertook happened in three phases, over the course of three years.

How we prepared to sunset (3 years before closing)

This phase involved the leadership team, human resources, and the board of directors. We focused on creating consensus around our end date, determining what resources and talent we would need to complete our mission, identifying what parts of our work would need to continue after sunset, and how best to retain our team members until the end. During this phase we:

Obtained approval from our board of directors to sunset on August 31, 2020.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

Although the board had known about our sunset plans all along, some suggested we take on a new mission rather than shut down. They reasoned that we were incredibly well positioned to create additional impact given our great internal team and credibility with governors and funders who would back us. While true, we convinced them that EducationSuperHighway had been built to upgrade the Internet in America’s K-12 schools and was not necessarily the right vehicle to pursue a different mission. It took a few meetings, but everyone ultimately agreed we needed to move forward with our initial plan.

Rebuilt our financial models with a three-year view and the ability to easily adjust staffing levels, compensation, severance, and outsourced expenses.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

Having a flexible financial forecasting tool allowed us to continually update our budget through our end date and facilitate scenario planning. It gave us the comfort that our funding commitments would be sufficient to complete our mission and ensure a positive transition for our team.

Developed a financial strategy for compensation increases and severance – with a particular focus on how to best retain our staff until sunset.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

We decided to put as much money into severance as possible with minimal salary increases in our final two years. While this was not initially popular with our staff (compensation increases ended up being higher than we expected), it was key to hitting our retention goals.

Invested in a robust professional development and career planning program to support our retention goals and position our team for their next roles.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

This ended up being perhaps the most important thing we did to ensure that we had the team we needed to complete our mission. We hired a VP of Talent to implement and focus on our professional development and career planning program. The VP focused entirely on talent development and ensured that our team felt comfortable with the career ambiguity that sunsetting created.

Developed internal and external communications plans to announce our sunset date.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

We knew that not everyone actually believed we would shut down the organization and that an actual shut down date could come as a shock to employees, our partners, and the school districts we supported. Knowing this, we tried to communicate as early and often as possible. However, our stakeholders later told us that they’d still only grant us about a “B-” in terms of our communication efforts. You truly can never communicate often enough or with enough detail.

Identified what parts of our work needed to continue after we sunset.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

This was an exercise in going from the aspirational to the practical. We started with a grand strategy that would essentially continue to deliver everything we were doing — advocacy, progress tracking, price transparency, and school district procurement support — for 10 years after our sunset. Our board worried and advised us to focus on a shorter timeline and the high-impact things that no one else in the ecosystem could do. After some thought, we decided to focus our efforts on keeping our data alive so that state leaders would be held accountable for the next upgrade goals and school districts would be able to find better broadband deals to keep up with the demand for bandwidth.

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Sunsetting insights part 2: The middle of the road

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EducationSuperHighway began planning for our sunset three years prior to 2020. We obtained approval from our board, began to review financial plans, and invested in various career-supporting resources for our staff. A year later, we began our sunsetting process by sharing the plan with staff and important stakeholders.

Beginning our sunset (two years before closing)

In this phase, we started internal and external communications about our plan to sunset on August 31, 2020. This prompted many questions from our team and other stakeholders, and required us to accelerate the process of figuring out the details of what sunsetting actually meant. We also began implementation of our new professional development and career planning program. We made it one of our five key objectives for the year in order to demonstrate our commitment to supporting our staff in finding their next roles. During this phase we:

Formally announced our August 31, 2020 sunset date to our staff.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

As expected, our team had many questions. While we had anticipated most of them and had created a list of potential questions in advance, there were questions that came up that we still didn’t have the answers to. This created a lot of frustration for the staff. In retrospect, we prioritized telling the team our end date as early as possible but would have been better off delaying the announcement until we had the answers to many more of their questions.

Announced our intention to sunset on August 31, 2020 externally.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

This one we got right. Rather than issue a press release with our plan to sunset, we started by talking to all of our key stakeholders individually. This gave us a chance to answer their questions and assure them that we would be around to finish the job of upgrading 99% of America’s K-12 schools.

Developed a project plan outlining the last 18 months of the organization.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

It was important for us to create a “straw man” for what the final 18 months of the organization would look like. Not only did it help us get clear on what we needed to accomplish each quarter, but it surfaced issues we needed to address prior to sunsetting. Part of this process was estimating the resources we would need to finish our mission. We learned that we were overly optimistic about how much the team could get done, but fortunately we added a 20% contingency plan so it all worked out!

Identified specific end dates for each of our team members.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

This was the number one, two, and three thing our staff wanted to know – when their individual jobs and roles would come to an end. Unfortunately, we did not have a concrete answer when we announced our sunset date because we had not yet put together a plan for what human resources would be needed to complete our goals by August 31, 2020. We committed to giving them an answer by Fall of 2019, but this remained the single biggest source of anxiety in the organization for the next 12 months. Ultimately, we decided on a three-stage downsizing plan starting April 2020 based on our 18-month project plan.

Created a plan to hand off our data to a partner.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

In the first phase of our sunsetting process, we decided that it was critical that our K-12 broadband data survived beyond our close. To do this, we decided to build a simplified data platform and hand it off to a partner organization. It was a good thing we started this early, because it took us over six months to identify a partner (we actually ended up with two) and another six months to work out the contracts. We also learned the importance of detailed expectations for our partners, and the need for transition time to help them though the inevitable bumps in the road.

Delivered regular updates to the team about our sunset plan.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

Communicate, communicate, communicate. In times of uncertainty, people want to know everything they can in order to feel secure. We created a schedule of regular updates and identified up front many of the things that would be part of each update. We communicated via email, staff meetings, and small group meetings.

Began a quarterly career planning and professional development discussion with each team member.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

Regular and frequent discussion of these topics encouraged our staff to start thinking about what would come next while there was still time for them to gain the skills and experience they needed to get their next jobs. It also gave the management team the information it needed to ensure that people were given the work responsibilities and external professional development opportunities that would prepare them for their job searches.

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Sunsetting insights part 3: The final chapter

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Three years prior to our sunset, we began planning. Two years prior to sunset, we shared those plans with stakeholders, incorporated feedback, and further defined our final sunsetting process. Beginning the summer of 2019, we put the plans into action.

Executing the plan (final year of operation)

Our final year was focused on finishing strong, sharing lessons learned, and celebrating success. Finishing strong meant keeping our employees motivated and gaining commitment from the K-12 broadband ecosystem to a new upgrade goal. We also spent a lot of energy identifying what the key drivers of our success were and finding ways to share that with the nonprofit, philanthropic, and government sectors. Finally, we made sure to celebrate and say thank you to everyone who contributed to the completion of our mission.

During this phase we:

Invested in reconnecting our staff to the mission.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

We should have done this years ago. By sending team members who normally had little external engagement to visit the schools we were upgrading and bringing in partners as guest speakers to our staff meetings, we were able to show everyone the positive impact of their work. This energized people like nothing else.

Gave everyone clear deliverables for their roll-off date.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

Everyone had a part to play in finishing strong. By making it clear what we needed each individual to accomplish before they left and empowering them to say “no” to requests that might get in the way, we made sure that the critical things got done.

Rallied the K-12 broadband ecosystem around a new bandwidth goal.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

We were nervous that when we sunsetted, the momentum we had built around upgrading schools would dissipate. To counter this, we showed stakeholders that everything was in place to hit a new, higher bandwidth goal (1 Megabit per second per student) in four years. We also convinced 40 governors to sign on to the new goal.

Identified and shared key lessons learned.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

As with everything, if you want to have impact, you need to focus. While there are many things that we learned along the way that can be instructive to others (which we have tried to share on this website), we realized we had to focus on three key lessons if we really wanted to have impact beyond our mission. We put the bulk of our energy into communicating:

  • The power of a finite goal.
  • How we partnered with government.
  • How to use data to drive impact, not just measure it.
Offboarded EducationSuperHighway with key partners.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

We created offboarding processes to make sure responsibilities were seamlessly transitioned when an employee rolled off the organization. We realized that we needed to do the same for our key partners to ensure that they had access to critical resources we had developed and felt empowered to carry on the work of upgrading schools after we sunsetted.

Celebrated EVERYONE.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

One of our guiding principles as an organization was to recognize our partners and stakeholders for the progress made in upgrading schools. We wanted to make sure everyone got credit for what they deserved during our sunset process. This greatly increased their commitment to the mission. Through handwritten thank you notes, blog posts, press releases, and commemorative gifts, we made sure that everyone felt celebrated and energized to continue the work post-EducationSuperHighway.

Helped our staff with their job searches.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

It was all about coaching and networking. While our career development program helped team members figure out what they wanted to do next and our severance strategy gave them plenty of time to find a new job, we realized our staff still needed help actually securing their next position. We brought in an outplacement firm to coach them on the mechanics of the job search and then leveraged our networks to connect them to organizations that were hiring. We engaged EducationSuperHighway alumni to provide introductions to their companies and even hosted a series of job pitches by CEOs and recruiters in our office.

Although we had always known that our organization would close, we didn’t quite know how much time, resources, and planning it would take to properly sunset the organization. We wanted to do everything right – from communicating to our stakeholders and appropriately sending our staff off to finding good homes for all of the data we had accumulated. We certainly stumbled and learned along the way, but we allowed room for feedback and change. Today, we can proudly say that we have completed our mission and will be moving on.

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Living our values

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EducationSuperHighway was able to connect 99.3% of students to high-speed broadband thanks to the hard work of 130+ team members throughout the last eight years. Thinking back on our experience, we realized that our data-driven, collaborative, and mission-oriented culture was all driven from our core values. We collectively created these values and committed to living them out, every day at EducationSuperHighway.

Hear how some of our employees committed to each of our values:

Evan Shea, Senior Consultant

TRUST

We all possess a faith in the potential of the public education system, the power of technology to transform it, and our ability to succeed, together.

Hanna Beckman, Senior Consultant

GET IT DONE WITH URGENCY

Every day that passes without a solution matters. We care and that drives us to act quickly.

Surafael Yared, Data Analyst

ADAPT AND CREATE

If the tool we need does not exist, we will create it. If existing policies and procedures are outdated, we work to change them. We make “yes” possible.

Kat Aquino - Data Scientist

MAKE IT REAL

Collect data, analyze it, and draw conclusions. Our decisions and actions are based on substance. Our broad ambitions are tempered by pragmatism.

Jenny Miller - Director, State Engagement

INSPIRE

Our energy is contagious. Our aspirations are large. We catalyze action.

Brian Shih, Principal Network Consultant

BE SINCERE

Our intention is pure: do what is right for kids. We think, communicate, and act with clarity, honesty, and focus.

 
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Committed to the mission

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In the early days of EducationSuperHighway, we focused on hiring people with the right technical skills to do the work. Because we weren’t looking for people with both the skills and the passion for our mission, we had more turnover than we anticipated. We realized we needed to hire and develop candidates who shared our commitment to improving the Internet in public schools.

Once we started screening for commitment to the mission, our teams became more focused, cohesive, and effective. We saw greater engagement, better results, and a lot less turnover.

How to screen for mission alignment

Commit internally

Our hiring teams and hiring managers agreed to vet candidates for both their skill sets and their interest in closing the classroom connectivity gap. In fact, we agreed that if someone wasn’t committed to the mission we wouldn’t hire them – no matter how good they were.

Expand your hiring rubric

In addition to assessing a candidate’s technical skills, our evaluation of potential hires focused on understanding three personal qualities during our hiring process: hungry, humble, and smart.

We found that people with true mission alignment consistently exhibited these three qualities and were great team players willing to take on whatever was needed to achieve our goals.

Interview cross-functionally

We made sure candidates were interviewed by individuals from multiple internal teams, not just people on the team they were interviewing for. This cross-functional approach ensured that some of the interviews were focused almost entirely on fit and mission alignment. It also made sure that a team wouldn’t give a candidate a pass on their commitment to the mission because they were excited by their technical skills.

What mission alignment looks like

“I wanted to work at an organization that focused on education and technology, and that was solving a critical equity issue in K-12 U.S. public education. I felt extremely connected to the mission and it was the main reason I applied to work at ESH! My previous job focused on improving the database and analytics infrastructure to improve outcomes in higher ed, so I knew what a difference laying that groundwork can be in actually innovating and improving learning outcomes.”

Marketing

“I was fortunate enough to be exposed to technology in the classroom throughout middle and high school. Honestly, without Khan Academy I doubt I would have survived my Physics Honors class (fun fact: Salman Khan actually spoke at one of our school assemblies in the early days of KA). We moved districts after I finished fifth grade and looking back there was definitely a stark difference between the two places, even though both districts were in Silicon Valley. At my old district, we had Sun desktops in the computer lab that were already a little outdated. At my new school, we had new Apple computers in the lab and even dedicated laptops for each student in some classrooms. All the students at my new school had computers at home, often even a personal one, whereas at my old school that definitely wasn't the case. The inequities were pretty obvious even at a young age, and it very clearly impacted the quality of our education.”

Analysis

“I actually found ESH through searching specifically for EdTech jobs, so I would say that I definitely had a connection to the mission from the start. I’ve had an interest in equity and education since college, when I volunteered with an after-school program that worked with underserved kids in Oakland. After working in the tech and startup space for a while, I decided that I wanted to find a job that was more closely related to my interests, which led me to searching for EdTech job postings. I would say that I instantly knew that I wanted the job here after reading the job posting and the about page on the ESH website.”

Engineering

“I had a connection to the mission when I started – I’ve done a lot of education-related volunteering (tutoring), and my education and digital learning opportunities made a huge difference in my life and where I am today in my career. However, I think what drew me the most to ESH was the fact that it was a nonprofit alone, and that they had analytics/engineering roles (most nonprofits don’t/didn’t in 2017). I was pretty jaded coming from working at a large for-profit company and I wanted to work somewhere where I could have a tangible impact on people.”

Engineering
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The importance of investing in professional development

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In the early days of EducationSuperHighway, professional development was largely self-directed; employees learned new skills, worked cross-functionally, and transferred teams without a set of formal professional development resources.

We understood the importance of these resources in the modern workforce and provided opportunities for staff to build skills and work toward their next career as soon as we could.

We started by asking the questions: How do we ensure our staff is developing professionally when they’re working themselves out of their jobs? How do we keep our teams engaged and motivated as we near the finish line?

We knew employee retention would be critical to accomplishing our mission by 2020. By investing heavily in professional and career development, we met our retention goals, and set up our team to succeed post-EducationSuperHighway.

Rethinking our approach to professional and career development

In 2017, we hired a Vice President of Talent to help us retain the staff we needed until the end. She developed and implemented an aggressive professional and career development program that included:

  • Creating specific career and professional development plans for each employee with quarterly check-ins. We standardized the process by establishing a template for Individual Development Plans (IDPs). It focused on three elements: skill building for current role, skill building for future desired roles, and career exploration conversations. Employees worked with their managers to identify personal values, competency strengths and weaknesses, and goals and objectives. They then periodically met for formal development plan conversations to discuss reflections, action steps, and priorities. These were referenced throughout the year and updated bi-annually with managers.
  • Investing in more internal and external training opportunities. With an expanded budget for professional development, we sent staff to external trainings in project management, managing teams, meeting facilitation, and decision-making. Our network team took certification courses in fiber optics, while our engineers and data scientists took courses to learn new coding languages and technical skills. Internal training included courses in emotional intelligence, situational leadership, and giving and receiving feedback. We also held workshops in creating a priority plan, developing weekly routines, and crucial conversations. One of the most popular series was on Designing Your Life, a best-selling book written by experts from the Stanford Design Program on using design thinking principles to plan for the future. Another popular course was Storytelling with Data. This course focused on data visualization and best practices in storytelling. This investment was so transformational that the people who attended the training created an internal program that persisted for nearly three years to educate the rest of the organization.
  • Creating professional learning communities. We launched “learning communities” to leverage internal subject matter expertise. Resident experts shared their knowledge in Excel, data analysis, storytelling with data, public speaking, Salesforce, Tableau, social media, and more. We also expanded “Lunch & Learn” events, where team members shared their expertise on a range of topics (e.g., machine learning, photography, mindfulness). This allowed us to acknowledge and celebrate individual talents and interests.
  • Revamping our annual review process, with a focus on skill development. Once each team member had an IDP, we modified our 360 review process to focus on assessing progress against those plans. We emphasized skill assessment and identified key professional development opportunities to help each employee meet their career goals.
  • Access to external job search resources. We took advantage of an external partnership to offer professional coaching, and hired consultants to help team members plan for future roles. These career consultants helped our staff with their resumes, LinkedIn profiles, interview skills, networking, and more. We also hosted networking events and guest speakers at our office.

The results

Our professional and career development program was a resounding success. We exceeded our staff retention goals through our sunset (we actually had less turnover than we were planning for), while our team members gained clarity on what they wanted to do next. In addition, our professional development program strengthened the data culture across the organization and enabled us to adapt to our evolving programmatic needs.

The Cost

Aside from the cost of hiring our VP of Talent, our professional and career development was not expensive. Over the final three years of our work, we invested an average of $2,552 per employee per year in the program – a relative bargain compared to the impact that missing our retention goals would have had on our mission and budget.

How to strengthen your professional development program

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