Lessons From Sesame Street: A Conversation with Shari Rosenfeld

I recently had the opportunity to interview Shari Rosenfeld, Vice President for International Projects at Sesame Street. Shari oversees Sesame Street’s development and execution of international projects that utilize media to educate. Rosenfeld manages partner relationships as well as overall project goals. After hearing her speak on a panel at the recent Yale School of Management Philanthropy Conference, I wanted to learn more about how Sesame Workshop (SW), the nonprofit arm of Sesame Street, utilizes its powerful brand to effectively address critical issues faced by children across the world

SW now reaches children in more than 150 countries across the world. Can you discuss how you bring new programs or expand existing programs into new countries?

There is really no one way in which we establish new programs. Sometimes we are invited by a local NGO or funder to assess whether Sesame Street can make a difference, and whether the local infrastructure needed to support a media project exists. Other times, we are more strategic in terms of deliberately thinking about where we want to be and why. We are always looking to see how we can address the core needs that have been locally identified as the most pressing. For example, in Northern Ireland, Sesame was well-positioned to address issues around social inclusion, mutual respect and understanding in a society emerging from conflict.  Our Sesame Tree program, which included broadcast on Cbeebies, web content on the BBC and educational outreach materials, was able to deliver on a unique set of objectives that no other media property could tackle.

We are now taking stock, assessing where our areas of focus should be. Africa, China and India are among our key priorities in the next few years.

Can you highlight one program that demonstrates the success of SW’s model?

In Egypt, with Alam Simsim, we established the program under the auspices of USAID and built a local coalition of partners. We deliberately selected talent from an ad agency, trained them to do children’s educational media and helped to build their capacity. Over the course of ten years we built a strong base of local support, and we made significant inroads in the areas of girls’ education.  We now have local partners in Egypt who are stewarding Alam Simsim, helping to build a sustainable long term presence to maximize the value of their local Sesame project.

India is an example of a different model for success. There, we set up the first wholly-owned subsidiary of SW, Sesame Workshop India, managing the production of our program there, Galli Galli Sim Sim. We built a local staff that is creating a relevant Sesame Street experience for Indian preschoolers, and exploring new platforms and content formats that will work best in India.  Through a new model for SW, they are opening the first SW preschool (a separate for-profit company), as a way to align both mission and revenue objectives. Through this venture, they can offer a higher quality preschool education at an affordable price; while simultaneously creating a sustainable revenue stream that can cross subsidize its other outreach activities.

What are the most common challenges SW faces within its international programming?

We are always looking to understand the best way to reach the most kids with the best content, in a financially responsible way. There is no one size fits all formula and we need to apply all of our lessons-learned differently to each new country and project. Achieving a long term meaningful presence is always our goal, but it is often a challenge.

For example, in Northern Ireland, we developed two seasons of television programming supported by various funders; pursuing a third season of television production was not feasible given shifts in funding patterns and the effects of the financial crisis on other funding sources. We also recognized that Sesame Tree would perhaps have the greatest benefit as an on ground outreach project, utilizing many of the media assets that had already been created.   We are now developing a strategic partnership with an organization called Early Years , with whom we’ve partnered in the past around the development and distribution of our materials. We believe they can effectively use Sesame as a strategic asset to deliver on our mutual goals around promoting respect and understanding amongst the preschool population in the Northern Ireland.

SW continues to be relevant and successful more than 40 years after it was established. What do you attribute that to?

We don’t settle and just sit on our laurels. We are constantly reinventing and trying to stay relevant. Our brand has so much trust and is universally loved by people- from parents to educators to government officials. In fact, there is a waiting list for celebrities that want to appear on Sesame Street; this gives our programming a level of caché. It reinforces that we do something unique and in a way that is fun, funny relevant, thoughtful and measureable in terms of the impact we deliver. Also, we are always interested in doing new things or reaching new audiences – for instance, we launched programming targeted at military families in the U.S.

Many of members of FLiP have grown up with SW. What advice do you have for young professionals navigating the philanthropic / nonprofit sector during these challenging economic times?

Don’t accept conventional guidance or formulas from your parents or more mature advisors because they may no longer work or be relevant.  We are living in dynamic times. Don’t assume what worked yesterday will work tomorrow.

To learn more about Sesame Workshop, visit www.sesameworkshop.org

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