Philanthropy University

A free, online learning platform that builds leadership and impact within international nonprofits.


Philanthropy University is a nonprofit that believes in transforming global development from the ground up. Guided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Philanthropy University sees a world where leaders in the Global South have the knowledge, resources and support they need to effectively improve their local communities. Philanthropy University believes that local leaders are uniquely positioned to address the most relevant challenges in their communities; yet they often lack access to knowledge and mentorship, limiting their ability to thrive and resulting in many organizations closing their doors before reaching their full potential.

In 2015, Philanthropy University created a free, online learning platform to help leaders in the Global South become more effective in their work and unlock greater impact in their organizations.

By providing the resources local change makers need, Philanthropy University is investing in the sustaining health and resilience of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

The Problem

Philanthropy University’s first iteration of the “University” attracted 220,000 learners to their platform and online courses. However, it became clear that while they were attracting users, users were not staying on the platform long and courses were not being completed. Philanthropy University came to Exygy with a desire to redesign their learning platform to make it more sticky, user-centered, scalable, and effective.

Philanthropy University also recognized that they had built an effective philanthropic organization, but not an effective digital first organization. They saw a need to revamp their organization model to better operate within all aspects of an online university. Philanthropy University needed to reorganize in a way that better supported its digital product and coordination between its course authoring, operations, and community management teams.

The Approach

Our team began by conducting an extensive discovery and research phase. We knew that the platform wasn’t sticking, and we wanted to know why. To do so, we knew we had to uncover the cultural nuance, the infrastructure limitations, and the accessibility constraints that Philanthropy University’s target users were encountering with online learning.

Data analytics, stakeholder interviews, and surveying informed the basis of our discovery work, and became the foundation of our platform redesign.

Armed with research and discovery findings, our team created detailed personas that highlighted the learners’ motivations, habits, needs and challenges. The personas helped us ground ourselves in users’ needs, and served as an informational basis to create user journeys and low fidelity wireframes. The wireframes became clickable prototypes which then enabled us to move into user testing.

Philanthropy University user testing has taken two forms:

1. Remote user testing in Kenya and Nigeria

The Philanthropy University team helped us recruit and schedule tests with users in Kenya and Nigeria. Remote testing helped us uncover usability issues, identify non-intuitive interactions, and validate language with users who were not native english speakers. These tests produced culturally relevant insights that wouldn’t be possible to replicate if conducted with users in the US.

2. In-person user testing in the US

User testing with San Franciscan locals allowed us to to simulate all environments, quickly and cost-effectively capturing the nuances of user testing that we couldn’t capture remotely.

A few of the current courses offered for students in the University.

Philanthropy University’s new platform went live in March 2018. Upon launching, we immediately moved into a measure and learn phase, to ensure that we would be continually improving the service the University offered to its users. Through Google Analytics, Exygy tracked learners’ real activity, gathering data on users’ behaviors, flows, and interactions to map where in the website users encountered obstacles. Based on insights from the metrics analysis, we redesigned some of the registration functionality as well as partnered with Philanthropy University’s marketing team to rethink their marketing strategy. These two actions combined led to an increase in registration conversion by 372% in one month! We continue to revise the platform’s functionalities to address challenges, frequently measuring the results, ensuring that the changes we are making create real improvements on the learning experiences of change makers in the Global South.

Throughout our work with Philanthropy University, we have focused on helping their team develop the skills and mindset of a digital-first organization – so they can continuously increase the impact of their online platform, even after Exygy’s work with them is done. We have helped Philanthropy University with recruiting, vetting, and hiring their staff and with training their team in full digital product development lifecycle – including user research and iterative/agile software development methodologies. These organizational developments have helped to ensure the long-term sustainability of the University and the hardworking team behind it.

The Impact
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Our dedication to making informed design decisions based on data analytics and on user research with learners in the Global South has led to impressive results. In the first four months after the University’s launch in March, more than 12,000 new learners accessed the platform, with more than 70% from the Global South. Course completion rate, across more than 10,000 enrollments in 9 different rigorous subject areas, ranks between 5% and 17%, compared to an industry average of 5%-8%. The 1,800 nonprofit organizations that have shared their data total a reach of more than 3 million people, and these represent only a portion of the 4,000+ organizations on the platform. Assuming these results hold true across across all organizations on the platform, we can extrapolate that the reach of the University is upwards of 6 million people! These are not just numbers – these are real change makers learning and sharing with others: the University’s most active forums see between 500 and 1,000 new posts a week.

These measurable results are enabled by our ability to make agile, informed designs and revisions to most acutely meet the needs of Global South leaders. They are backed by the investments that Philanthropy University has made within their internal operations to foster the skills and mindset of a sustaining digital-first organization. Most of all, they represent the empowerment of real, local leaders in the Global South that do the vital on-the-ground work to ensure a better, safer, healthier and more prosperous life for us all.


[Exygy has] played the leadership role in our design research, product strategy, and experience design efforts. In addition to being committed to the social impact sector, Exygy has consistently held themselves to a high standard of partnership, and been willing to go the extra mile to ensure we deliver an exceptional product for our global south users. I recommend Exygy’s work highly.

— Connor Diemand-Yauman, Co-Founder & CEO of Philanthropy University

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