It was a chance to step away, albeit temporarily, from the challenges of a daily life that was far more adult than it should have been—to immerse themselves in music; to throw themselves in movement; to have a little fun. They deserved some respite, and the classes—offered by the nonprofit organization MindLeaps—offered just that.
And, they would happily find out, much, much more.
For the last three years, 16-year-old Pacifique—Passy, to his friends—and Jean de Duc, his younger brother by four years, had been switching off roles as the caretaker of and provider for their mother, Dancile. She had been raped during the country’s horrific genocide and contracted HIV. In six-month stretches, one brother would head to the streets to steal or beg for food for the family, while the other stayed home. There was no time for school. But they were able to manage a short afternoon break, a few times a week, to dance.
As the boys learned dance, they also began picking up other skills, like teamwork, memorization and self-confidence. In fact, the program was tracking their progress—not to see if their dancing improved, but to track how much more grit, self-esteem and tenacity they were displaying. Skills that would no doubt come in handy outside of the studio. “Passy’s skills improved further and faster than anyone we’ve ever had in the program before or since,” says Rebecca Davis, founder of MindLeaps. “But he was totally outside of the education system.”
MindLeaps went on to sponsor Passy’s formal education. He excelled there too, skipping grades and outscoring classmates. Last year, he scored in the top 10 percent of all Rwanda on his primary school exams, and he’s headed to secondary school on a government scholarship. On school breaks, he operates a fruit stand that still helps to support his mother. Jean de Duc has also gone on to boarding school. “We’re creating a bridge,” says Davis. “These kids have the talent and they have the skills. They just never had the environment to develop them.”
Launched in 2010, MindLeaps works primarily in East and West Africa, with centers in Rwanda and Guinea, and partnership programs in Kenya, Uganda and Mauritania, to help the most vulnerable youth develop the essential learning skills they need for formal education.
For MindLeaps, dance is simply a way to get them in the door. Becoming a great dancer is not the primary objective: Davis wants to help the children in MindLeaps get an education, so they can change the trajectory of their lives.
Dance may seem too subjective to measure, but researchers are proving very adept at it. Over the course of three years, Davis assembled a team of researchers from Drexel University and Carnegie Mellon University to formalize a tracking program and to develop a tool that could monitor each child. They tracked different skills that they thought were being improved through the dance workshops: memorization, language, grit, discipline, teamwork, self-esteem and creativity.
The tool, called Tracker, is a two-part data application system. The first, an app that lives on an Android tablet, is used to assess when a child should move to the next MindLeaps stage—staff inputs personal data and uses a rubric for the seven skills, rating the kids on a scale from zero to seven. The second, an online software application, enables both staff and funders to take the long view. To ask, Davis says, by way of example: “‘OK, overall in Rwanda, if we look at boys who are 15 years old, what happens with self-esteem?’ Then you pull up that graph. Or if we want to look at how Rwandan boys learn compared to boys in Kenya, we can put in those filters and pull up that data.”
While Davis’ goal in creating the tool was to prove that her program worked, its creation also speaks to a larger shift in the nonprofit world: a more quantitative, less qualitative approach to providing aid. “The for-profit sector is so much further ahead in using technology than the nonprofit sector,” says Suzanne Laporte, president of Compass, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Washington D.C. that studies the impact of technology on the nonprofit sector. “More funders and donors want to see metrics and data-driven results.” By showing the value of each dollar with data, nonprofits can make a stronger case for more funding—and funders are asking to see more data than ever before.
But it’s not just about funding. The collection of data has profoundly shifted how Davis runs MindLeaps. “Now we know where we’re effective and where we’re not,” says Davis. “The impact that MindLeaps is having on teamwork among refugees, for example, is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.” The results are so much more promising than the results with local street children that Davis is reallocating resources to reach more refugees. Another key takeaway: a child’s overall performance increases dramatically at first and then saturates after about 200 days, suggesting an optimal program duration.
This kind of data can help widen MindLeaps’ ability to effect change. Pre-Tracker, fundraising efforts netted MindLeaps about $150,000. Post-Tracker, they closed $470,000 when their fiscal year ended. They have also been able to expand beyond Rwanda and Guinea, where they first got started. Davis attributes the bump in funding directly to their ability to demonstrate impact. It’s no longer theoretical—the numbers show the power of investing in a child.
Of course, there will always be skeptics to question what dance has to do with development. To that, Davis says: “As long as you have a data-driven tool to make sure you have the sincerity and the diligent, scientific rigor behind your idea, you should accept that something as crazy as dance could be a way to solve the world’s problems.”