As a graduate from the Université Catholique de Louvain and Belgium native, I am very excited to spotlight Mobile School. This social entrepreneurship story started in 1996 when Arnoud Raskin, its founder, returned to Belgium after six months in Colombia as an educator, determined to make a change in the daily life of street kids.
As an industrial design major, Arnoud started by designing a poncho-shelter backpack for street kids, but quickly realized the inadequacy of the solution: kids would sell the backpack as soon as they got it. Indeed, the problem of street living is both substantial and complex. The number of street children worldwide exceeds 100 million. Those children living on the street suffer from poverty, exclusion, illiteracy, and abuse.
The usual solutions to address this issue focus on removing children from the streets as quickly as possible and placing them into shelters. However, bringing unprepared children into a world whose rules they do not fully understand can do more harm than good. As a result, 90 percent of street kids that are brought to reintegration shelters drop out just after two days. Mobile School aims to address the root of the problem by empowering—rather than assisting—these children. In order to do so, Mobile School reaches them in their environment, the street, and makes use of their positive and unique qualities, which are often neglected by the alternative, short-term solutions.
Mobile School was incorporated in 2002, after two years of pilot testing in local organizations in Guatemala and Bolivia. Mobile School’s “box on wheels” goes to children on the street. The 6-meter blackboard contains more than 300 games and exercises that can be customized based on the local context. School children are thus taught how to read and write, as well as basic health advice, among other skills.
Mobile School’s impact is now deployed in 20 countries in over four continents. Every year, 40,000 street children take part in 2,000 Mobile School sessions. Mobile School was able to scale its solutions all over the world thanks to dozens of local partners. These grassroots organizations, which are well aware of the local context and needs, have been carefully selected and trained by Arnoud and his team, and a rigorous follow-up process was put in place as they began implementation.
In order to sustain Mobile School’s activities over the long-run, and after spending $1.7M of donated funds received from a venture philanthropist, Arnoud decided he needed to implement an earned income strategy, rather than constantly looking for new donors. He created Streetwize, a firm that provides training to business executives and employees to learn the core competencies of street children. All profits of Streetwize are then channeled to the social mission of Mobile School, contributing to more than a quarter of its entire budget. Learning opportunities include dealing with crisis, high-risk, constant change, and competition. These trainings enable business executives to become more “streetwise” like the kids who survive in these environments, while primarily developing their leadership, creativity, and positivity. Following the success of Streetwize in Belgium, Arnoud and his team are planning to expand their activities across Europe through a franchising model.
Mobile School exemplifies the types of win-win situations that can be created by social enterprises—“entrepreneurs here and street children there get smarter”. As such, social enterprises are increasingly being referred to as “hybrid organizations” that combine both market and social welfare logics. To pursue their social mission, unlike traditional nonprofit organizations relying primarily on outside philanthropic funding, hybrid organizations are engaged in commercial activities to generate revenues to sustain their operations.
Hybrid organizations are now competitors and actuation targets for traditional enterprises, which have led to the model’s popularity growth. In this case, competitors include, for instance, other business providing leadership training. Hybrids also compete with traditional nonprofit organizations, since they often source funding and support from the same foundations and agencies, and occupy similar places in the mind of the donating public. Mobile School is a good example of a hybrid organization that bridges the developed and developing worlds, providing an innovative solution to an issue that has long resisted the traditional solutions provided by NGOs. It illustrates the combination of two different logics, social and commercial, in a joint effort to help those in need without losing track of the social mission, the first and foremost driver of social enterprises.