How Beta Began
At Evidence Action we know the power and promise of effective social innovation incubation. Prior to our launch in 2013, our flagship programs, Dispensers for Safe Water and the Deworm the World Initiative (both now GiveWell-recommended standout and top charities respectively), were incubated by Innovations for Poverty Action, a research and policy advocacy organization. The year after Evidence Action was created to take on the management of both programs, we launched Evidence Action Beta: an in-house incubator of prospective programs with potential for impact at scale. It was an ambitious move for a young and dynamic organization, but it was also a natural next step.
We realized that in order to close the gap between research and implementation, we needed to build a connecting bridge. With our flagship initiatives, much of the hard work of priming them for scale—taking them from proof of concept to operationally feasible and scalable programs—had already been done. In 2013, the two programs jointly reached millions of people in Asia and Africa. Over the last four years, we have grown these programs significantly; they now reach hundreds of millions of people on a yearly basis. But expanding programs that are already operating at scale with a clear and replicable delivery model is very different from building and scaling entirely new initiatives—which is what Beta was created to do.
In the last three years, Evidence Action Beta has grown and matured in significant ways.
Our purpose, our process
Evidence Action’s mission is to become a world leader in scaling evidence-based and cost-effective programs to reduce the burden of poverty. The purpose of our Beta function is to produce these programs, taking ideas that have proven successful in tightly-controlled research environments and translating them into measurably impactful, cost-effective programs that can be delivered, at scale, in the ‘real world’. In this way, we aim to fuel organizational growth and multiply the organization’s impact.
From the beginning, our focus has been on finding programs that are evidence-based, cost-effective, and scalable. These values haven’t changed, and we’ve come a long way in developing our approach for identifying, pressure-testing, and scaling the best candidates. Today, we conceptualize the path to scale through four phases: sourcing, prototyping, pressure-testing, and testing at scale.
Every Beta project begins as a promising idea linked to rigorous research. The sourcing phase involves seeking out, curating, and assessing these ideas. The goal of sourcing is not to find perfect ideas over which no outstanding questions remain and no potential implementation challenges exist. Instead, we look for compelling ideas with promise.
What does sourcing look like? This year, we built out our pro-poor economic development agenda, identifying dozens of evidence-based ideas with implementation promise from research and academic networks.
Research- and evidence-based ideas are always the starting point for our programs, but they are rarely complete recipes for program design. Promising ideas must be turned into prototypes–sketches of program models that could be delivered at scale. Since prototypes are not replicas of research studies, but are instead aimed at becoming viable programs, they must often be innovated from the ground up, informed by a diverse range of evidence.
What does prototyping look like? We recently connected six promising interventions with real-world opportunities across sub-Saharan Africa and India, and have begun prototyping their implementation models for scaling.
As each prototype is developed, it is subjected to thorough pressure-testing, a process that helps us understand the costing model, assess whether it is likely to generate intended impact, and answer other key questions about the potential program’s theory of change. Essentially, pressure-testing involves pushing against an idea – relating to it as antagonists. Our goal is to identify weaknesses – of any kind – that could stand in the way of cost-effective impact at scale, while at the same time iterating on the model to address those weaknesses and develop a standardized delivery toolkit. Many projects won’t make it through this phase – but those that do have great potential.
What does pressure-testing look like? This year, we successfully completed the third volunteering cycle of G-United in Kenya, which deployed its biggest cohort of youth literacy-mentors to help children in over 200 schools learn using an evidence-based approach.
By the fourth phase, our confidence about the impact, scalability, and cost-effectiveness of a partnership intervention has grown. So too, however, have our questions–which become progressively more complex. Will the program’s theory of change hold true at scale? Is scaled implementation feasible with sufficient fidelity to the original design? As a program grows, will it begin to influence the very context in which it operates? These are questions that we seek to answer by testing at scale.
What does testing at scale look like? One of our more advanced Beta projects, No Lean Season, is currently in this phase. In collaboration with academic and implementation partners, we are pursuing an ambitious agenda which includes fine-tuning implementation protocols, understanding spillover and general equilibrium effects, building delivery capacity for growth, and a large-scale RCT to evaluate impact at scale.
Over the last three years, Evidence Action Beta has evolved from a diverse set of projects into a coherent pipeline aimed at generating new programs to serve the organization’s mission.
When we started out, our team consisted first of one, then two, then five people dedicating varying levels of their time to particular projects. Today, Evidence Action Beta has a team of 17 who bring in a range of expertise: from research, to program implementation, to partnership management and communications. We are creating an environment in which a unique intersection of skills and experience come together to find, test, and build new programs that have the potential to be cost-effective at massive scale.
Over the last year we’ve pivoted towards consciously leveraging our organizational infrastructure and our flagships’ substantial delivery platforms. As we move into 2018 and beyond, we are excited to build on the success of our existing programs to generate new opportunities for impact. Our robust relationships with federal and state governments in India; the extensive last-mile delivery platform that Dispensers for Safe Water provides; and the in-house technical capacity offered by our Monitoring, Learning and Information Systems team–all of these assets that we believe provide a rich and fertile ground for future growth.