The online education industry is missing an opportunity to serve the social sector. It is time to do better.

As a course designer at Philanthropy U, a question I get a lot is “why are you creating your own courses?”

After all, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), like the ones you find on Philanthropy University, have been around for a while. In 2012 the so-called “year of the MOOC” came and went. By 2018, there were more than 11,000 MOOCs floating around the internet. Today there are huge players in the MOOC industry posting billion-dollar valuations and pumping out hundreds of new courses every year.

So, why does our small team in Oakland feel the need to create our own courses? 

The simple answer is: nobody else is designing courses specifically for the learners who we are committed to serving.

What makes a Philanthropy University course different?

We ask two questions before we start designing a course:

  • What do frontline, locally-led social impact organizations, such as nonprofits and social enterprises, need to be able to do?
  • What resources already exist to teach these skills?

Often, when we start our exploration, we will find some excellent articles on the subject we are hoping to teach. We may also find one or two existing online courses. If we are convinced that someone else is already teaching the subject well, we may pause our course project altogether. We want to make sure our courses are filling existing gaps in knowledge or demand and that they are uniquely valuable to our learners. 

Usually, however, we will find that the existing online education resources simply do not work for our target audience of nonprofits and NGOs operating in under-resourced environments around the world. The problem usually comes down to three factors: focus, format and language.

The organizations delivering social impact around the world deserve more than what online education has traditionally provided them.”


Due to their social purpose and funding model, nonprofits, social enterprises and NGOs face challenges which are quite different from those faced in the private sector. Unfortunately, however, a lot of what passes for “professional development for the social sector” today is simply the same tools, practices and approaches made for the private sector but  with a different title; the content is not adapted for the social sector audience. The problem is twice as pronounced for on-the-ground, under-resourced organizations who find it hard to even relate to content designed for the broader nonprofit sector.

Interested in learning project management? If you work for a big IT company, online education has you covered with courses from large online platforms and even universities offering online options. If you are working for a large INGO you may be able to scrape by with some borrowed knowledge from the private sector or take advantage of some proprietary internal resources. But if you are working for a new community-based women’s rights group in Ghana? Lessons on international supply chains and network diagrams might not be so useful. Philanthropy University courses focus on the specific context of  locally-led social impact organizations: their unique realities, challenges and opportunities. (If you are actually interested in project management for social impact, check out our course!)

That is why, when we design our new courses, we focus on the stories of organizations that are applying skills in challenging, real-world conditions worldwide. This requires late nights and early mornings speaking with organizations ten timezones away to ensure our courses are focused enough to be helpful to our learners, from the lectures to the case studies and assignments.


MOOCs, even when they do teach useful skills for the social sector, tend to rely on lecture videos. Leaving aside the pedagogical issues with this format, video is a bandwidth-heavy format that many are unable to use due to infrastructure limitations or cost. After talking to dozens of learners we found that many of them would rather read the video transcripts than watch the videos. 

That is why, as part of our 2018 re-launch, we completely replaced all of our lecture videos with podcasts, text and graphics which anyone with a 3G connection can easily access. It is part of the reason why we generally do not reuse other providers’ MOOCs; they do not speak to the unique needs of our learners.


Finally, there is the issue of language. Any good educator understands the importance of teaching a subject in the simplest language possible. For our students, more than 70% of whom do not speak English as a first language, this problem is especially pronounced. 

Unfortunately, nearly every article, video series or online course we find seems to be designed for native English speakers with university-level language skills. Our instructional design team spends countless hours stripping out confusing idioms, colloquialisms and unnecessarily complicated language out of our courses so that our learners can succeed. This goes beyond our course content and includes our course description pages, website information and even our Facebook posts!

Taken together, the issues of focus, format and language on other platforms have had devastating effects on the ability of our target learners to access online learning resources. A study from MIT pointed out that only 1.43% of learners in courses on EdX hailed from countries categorized as “low” on the human development index. Other studies have found that these same learners are much less likely to complete MOOCs.

Luckily, there is a way forward 

While higher education and the education technology industry have overlooked the unique needs of under-resourced, locally-led nonprofits, NGOs and social impact organizations, leaders from within the sector have stepped up. 

The social impact community is rich in expertise. Wherever we look — whether to fundraising, data management, strategic planning or financial management —we find inspiring professionals who are already teaching vital skills to organizations who need it. When we opened up our 2019 request for course advisors, we were inundated with close to 100 extremely qualified applications.

Some organizations, like Dasra and The Brandling, currently share their hard-earned knowledge with in-person courses and mentoring. Other organizations, like the Partnering Initiative (TPI), are publishing groundbreaking case studies and research. All these organizations need is a little help from our instructional design team to bring their expertise online and share that knowledge with more than 80,000 learners on our platform.

The organizations delivering social impact around the world deserve more than what online education has traditionally provided them. With the support of critically engaged social impact leaders, a dash of good design and a free online platform to bring it all together, we are confident that we are on to something.

September 4, 2019


Andrew is an Instructional Design Manager at Philanthropy U. He works with subject-matter experts and course advisors from around the world to design, create and publish courses.


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