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Mobile Schools: Where Street Kids and Execs Find a Win-Win

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.

Sources:

https://www.ashoka.org/fellow/arnoud-raskin

http://www.mobileschool.org/en

http://www.streetwize.be/en/about