“Please help,” began the LinkedIn post from the director of strategic partnerships at CommonLit.
An “unprecedented demand” for CommonLit’s free reading program from parents suddenly at home with school-aged children is straining the nonprofit’s resources, according to the organization. A “donation of any size” could help meet that demand, the post said.
CommonLit has had a tenfold increase in parent accounts alone—with many inquiries from the low-income families the organization was founded to serve, said Michelle Brown, founder and CEO of CommonLit.
The entreaties on social media are part of the nonprofit’s strategy to keep up in a world that changed almost overnight as the coronavirus’ spread prompted at least 124,000 U.S. public and private schools to close, affecting at least 55 million students, according to statistics compiled by Education Week.
.Zearn, a nonprofit that offers a free K-5 math program to schools, is also reaching out for donations, said founder and CEO Shalinee Sharma. “Signups to our site are up 1,000 percent, and about 70 percent of those are coming from kids in low-income Title I schools,” she said.
Like CommonLit, serving that population is central to its mission. Zearn is receiving thousands of emails a day, and answering every one, Sharma said.
“With the increased demand for services from a variety of nonprofits, doing this kind of thing is going to be necessary so these groups can keep up,” said Rick Cohen, the chief operating officer for the National Council of Nonprofits. That’s especially true in uncertain economic times.
Displaying a “Donate Now” button on a website is a standard practice for many nonprofits, he said. CommonLit has one on a dedicated page, and Zearn also has a donation page on its site. The chief executives of both companies said there’s been minimal activity over the years via those fundraising avenues.
But now they say they need a boost.
Cohen cautioned that nonprofits should avoid sending a newsletter or mailing across the country requesting donations, because that would put this appeal in a different category.
“There are regulations in 41 states regarding charitable solicitations,” Cohen said. While a “Donate Now” button is passive, promoting it in a mass mailing is an active solicitation, and one that could bring the attention of state regulators—along with reporting requirements that vary state by state, he said.
Conversations With Funders
At Quill, a nonprofit that offers free tools to make students better writers, the idea of requesting donations from the public didn’t occur to Peter Gault, the company’s founder and executive director.
“Since we launched our COVID-19 response plan, we’ve seen a large number of parents start using Quill, so now we’re serving both parents and teachers,” Gault said.
“While we are a nonprofit, we’ve been fortunate to raise large grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others, and generate earned revenue from licensing our AI to publishers,” said Gault.
Gault said he is in talks with some funders right now, “We don’t want to come across as opportunistic,” he said. “We see philanthropy stepping up. Our existing funders are now exploring new ways they can help,” he added.
CommonLit and Zearn are also reaching out to current funders, their CEOs said.
A welcome surprise for CommonLit occurred last week, when Bill Gates recommended their program—among others—on a Reddit chat, Brown said. “I don’t know how he knows about CommonLit,” because his philanthropy doesn’t fund it, she said. “But we’d love to have his support.”
Putting Emergency Funds to Use
Whether from funders or the public, emergency donations will be allocated to ease the strain at this time.
A boost in funding would allow Zearn to staff up for more support of caregivers, parents, and teachers with more resources, Sharma said.
Zearn’s site experience is designed for teachers, not parents, she said. The first screen you see “would make a lot of sense if you’re a teacher, but as a parent it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she said. “It would be much more efficient if we could modify the app experience.”
“We’re asking for money to be completely responsive to what our users need so we can reach all kids,” said Brown at CommonLit. “We need a workaround for kids who don’t have emails. We need low-bandwidth options. We need to make our site fully ADA-compliant.”
“We’re up to the challenge,” she said. “We’re built for this.”