When I first started my organization, CommonLit, a free platform for literacy resources and progress tracking tools for grades 5-12, one of the most important decisions I had to make was whether to incorporate as a nonprofit or a for-profit. Many smart people discouraged me from starting a nonprofit. The established tech startup community seemed to view nonprofit corporations as outmoded and foolish.
In retrospect, I’m glad I ignored these people and trusted my gut. In the end, my goal wasn’t to make money; it was to do good in the world.
For starters, goodwill is an unexpectedly powerful asset. Incorporating as a nonprofit can significantly lower startup costs. Lawyers are expensive, and it costs money to start a business. In the early stages of CommonLit, a pro bono legal clinic helped me write and file our articles of incorporation, set up a board of directors, and file a trademark application. They gave me a comprehensive checklist of everything I needed to do to get my organizational ducks in a row. Using this clinic allowed me to focus my time on actually building and piloting my product, which is where a lot of early-stage entrepreneurs get tripped up.
When my organization was in its nascent stages, fifteen graduate students volunteered their free time to amass a library of educational lessons – something that would have been nearly impossible with a for-profit model. Instead of asking about equity stakes or intellectual property ownership, people asked what they could do to advance our mission of helping teachers in low-income schools. Finding volunteers isn’t too difficult. There are a number of websites like Catchafire that match nonprofit organizations with executive level experts in marketing or design who complete projects completely for free. You can also tap your own network. Have you ever looked on LinkedIn? Basically everyone wants to do skills-based volunteering or join a nonprofit board. Fast Forward even launched a Job Board specifically for jobs, volunteer roles, and board positions in the tech nonprofit sector. Doing good unambiguously opens doors.
There is a clear trend in the job market as well. Increasingly, people want to work for companies that make a difference. The UCLA Higher Education Research Institute reported that 2005 marked a 25-year high in students’ belief that it is “essential or important to help others.” Three years into scaling my tech nonprofit, we’ve been able to lure away some of the best engineers and designers from for-profit companies. The bigger we grow our impact, the easier it has been to attract talent.
The freebies nonprofits can get are extraordinarily valuable, and most companies have offered us a nonprofit discount when we asked. The benefits range from software as a service, to Google Adwords, to discounted copyright permissions from authors and publishers. You can use your nonprofit status to get a Salesforce CRM, or offset your hosting costs with Amazon Web Services credits. Our nonprofit status even enabled us to form a partnership with TextHelp, which provides a game-changing assistive technology toolbar for struggling readers. TextHelp, which has developed the single best accessibility toolbar on the market, even wrote custom code so we could embed it in our site. Put simply, for every dollar we have raised, we have received multiples of that value in the form of free products and services. And it’s only possible because we are a mission-focused nonprofit.
I also receive a ton of incredible advice. I’ve been fortunate in that nearly everyone I meet is willing to help me think about how to move my business forward. Highly-paid engineers at some of the largest tech companies have helped us think through how to migrate our servers to meet increased data needs, financial analysts have built fancy powerpoint models to help us chart our future growth, and experienced lawyers have offered us continuing, pro bono legal advice on student data privacy statutes. Beyond that, I have received more introductions to helpful people in the field than I can count.
The Gratitude Network is excited to present its 2014 Gratitude Award winners: GoodWorld Solutions (Oakland, CA), The Springboard Collaborative (Philadephia, PA), DrinkWell (Mumbai, India) and Jail Education Solutions (Chicago, IL).
Jail Education Solutions – improves inmate outcomes by incentivizing educational and vocational progress through tablet-based curriculum in correctional facilities. Jail Education was the winner of our “Audience Choice” (by popular vote) at SOCAP14.
Goodworld Solutions – is our winner in category of Community Development, provides the first platform (“LaborLink”) to leverage the disruptive power of mobile to give voice to the global workforce and deliver real-time data to companies like Cisco and Patagonia to align sourcing practices with worker needs.
SpringBoard Collaborative – our 2014 winner in category of Education, addresses the reading achievement gap with programs and tools for coaching teachers, training family members, and incentivizing learning such that our scholars have the requisite skills to access life opportunities.
DrinkWell – Transforms the arsenic and fluoride water crisis affecting over 200 million people across rural India and Bangladesh into an entrepreneurial opportunity by blending proprietary filtration technology with a franchise business model. They are our winner in the category of Health.
Gratitude Award winners were chosen from the Nine Finalist companies who each presented on stage at The SOCAP14 event on September 5, 2014 – details can be found on this page. Their presentations to the SOCAP14 audience on September 5th can be found at this link. Our nine Finalists were narrowed down by a panel of experts from semi-finalists (who were covered in this article which appeared in YourMarkOnTheWorld, a blog by Forbes writer, Devin Thorpe).
This was the 2nd year The Gratitude Awards were held and our first year in partnership with SOCAP. More information about all our portfolio companies can be found on this page.