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Unpacking EYElliance’s Role as a Systems Orchestrator  

January 6, 2021

By Zach Slobig - Skoll Foundation

Social change is a team sport. We hear that a lot these days. The scope and scale of a problem that impacts billions of people demands deep, systemic collaboration and coalition building. Never will a single organization—or twenty working independently—solve such a problem for good.  

Nearly 1 billion people around the world live with blindness or vision impairment that is correctable with a pair of eyeglassesWithout good vision, both children and adults are excluded from full access to economic opportunity. On a more fundamental level, poor eyesight can limit full participation and enjoyment of life overall. The benefits of corrected vision are incontrovertible: improved educational outcomes, increased personal earnings, increased productivity of the working poor, and improved literacy ratesWhile the necessary technology and large-scale distribution models exist, the problem persists.   

Orchestrating a System to Solve Problems at Scale   

In a series of spotlight pieces over the next few months, we will take a closer look at how EYElliance tackles this problem as a systems orchestrator—a multisector coalition with a global vantage point to hold and drive global strategy towards eradicating this solvable problem. As a neutral broker, EYElliance can knit together efforts that draw on the strengths of the public and private sectors along with the largest International Non-Governmental Organization (INGO) global development implementers.   

Since only a handful of problems attract buyin from the largest global actors, a top-down solution will always have its limitations. Meanwhile, social enterprises focused on scaling a proven solution will never solve a billionperson problem working alone—the limitations of a bottom-up approach.  

“EYElliance was founded to accelerate the uptake by governments and the private sector of the most powerful proven solutions, developed by NGOs, social enterprises, and inclusive business models. We create linkages between the bottom up and top-down approaches. I call it a bottom up driven, top-down strategy.” Jordan Kassalow, co-Founder of EYElliance   

VisionSpring eye health campaign in Ciudad Arce, El Salvador

EYElliance recognized the need for a coalition that would be nimble in approach and embrace iteration. They identify existing, proven working models and integrate them into broader systems. As we’ll explore in this series, by working with and through partner organizations, EYElliance addresses the systemic barriers to access and adoption that no single organization or business could accomplish on its own. Over the long term, they work to fix the problem for good through a creative, flexible, and persistent approach. 

“EYElliance de-risks the adoption of scaling pathways that, when driven by government or entrepreneurs, will translate into national scale and 100s of millions of first-time glasses wearers.  At the country level this involves accelerating replication of profitable business models and identifying and filling gaps that inhibit full integration of proven delivery models into government systems. All along the way we codify what this takes in both policy and practice generating efficiencies as we bring new actors into the solution.”  Elizabeth Smith, co-Founder of EYElliance   

Most social enterprises at some point in their lifespan reach the limitations of their impact and not every social enterprise has the skill set and capacity to engage in systems orchestration work. EYElliance co-Founders Jordan Kassalow and Elizabeth Smith embraced a beginners mind and an appetite for learning with humility. It launched with social capital and credibility because of Kassalow and Smith’s track record with VisionSpring, the pioneering social enterprise that delivers vision screening and affordable glasses to the world’s poor. 

Jordan Kassalow sizes a new pair of eyeglasses for a boy in El Salvador.
Jordan Kassalow fits a new pair of eyeglasses for a boy in San Miguel, El Salvador.

It began though at the ground level to gain credibility as a collaborator and coalition builder both within the eye care community of practice and among donors, bilateral and multi-lateral institutions, and INGOs. In the span of just a few years, EYElliance has taken its place in that landscape as an effective systems orchestrator with demonstrable impact.   

Three Models of Impact 

Over the course of this series, we’ll draw on a rubric created by the Democracy Fund to explore the narrative of three of EYElliance’s key inflection points: 

  • Transformative impacta positive exponential change in a previously static system. In Liberia, we’ll look at a case of government-led national scale. EYElliance’s coalition of implementing partners works in service of the Liberian Ministries of Health and Education’s plans to integrate school eye health and community eye health workers into policy and practice. This effort will reach 500,000 Liberian schoolchildren and 1.2 million adults living at the last mile without access to eye health. 
  • Proactive impact: an intervention accelerates the rate of change in a system that had been moving in a positive directionIn Latin America we’ll look at a case of scaling with development finance. EYElliance works to accelerate the scale out of a profitable model derived from a 100 store Mexican optical chain and transform it into a regional, inclusive optical sector capable of absorbing significant development finance and private capital. It pioneers and de-risks the model, and adapts it for Chile, Peru, and Ecuador, effectively creating a new impact industry in Latin America. 
  • Opportunistic Impact: a trigger event removes an obstacle to change, suddenly amplifying impact. We’ll look at a step change in U.S. government policy and funding around eye health in the disability agenda. EYElliance’s advocacy with government officials leads to a front-page New York Times story outlining the scale of the problem and the benefits intervention. As a result, USAID was asked by the US Congress to allocate $2.5 million in the first year, and to date $9.5 million, for initiatives that improve access to lowcost eyeglasses for children and adults in low and middleincome countries.   
A woman in India getting prescriptions for glasses, surrounded by other smiling women
A VisionSpring eye health campaign in Kalwaka Village, Haryana, India

Transferable Lessons 

A recent report from Dalberg AdvisorsThe Case for Investing in Assistive Technology, projected the potential total lifetime economic gains for all those currently living with vision impairmentif equipped with eyeglasses—at a staggering $1.7 trillion for children and $3.6 trillion for adults. The need for affordable eyeglasses is finally getting the attention it deserves on the global development agenda. In a few short years, EYElliance has transformed the way key decision-makers view the issue area and has mobilized UN agencies, bilateral institutions, the World Bank, and others to think about and fund access to glasses differently. 

EYElliance’s collaborations engage national governments and de-risk new market entry to transform systems to solve a problem that slows economic growth, limits children’s potential to learn, and stands in the way of a more inclusive global marketplace. This series will take a “howdunit” approach—borrowing a term from our friends at the Solutions Journalism Network. It will tease out what systems orchestration looks like in practical terms, exploring what has worked for EYElliancewhere they’ve faced challenges, and what lessons may be transferable to other issue areas and actors. We hope this series will also be useful for others in the philanthropic community as they consider the impact of different type of organizational models in their investment decisions.  

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