4 Lessons about Non-profit Education Startups
Updated: Jun 7, 2021
Rhi Alyxander, Silvyn Tetreault and Dane Wilson started their project, Education Without Limits, because the pandemic highlighted the urgent need for tangible, low cost, high-quality resources for our burnt out educators. Rhi, an educator in California, had first-hand experience with the frustrations of burnout and the lack of support for educators, especially those serving students from marginalized backgrounds. Silvyn’s background in developmental services administration and LGBTQIA+ training left them looking to better utilize their acumen for digital design, and affect real change in the human services. Dane worked in beverage sales and digital marketing on the East coast. Over the course of a few conversations during the start of the pandemic lockdown, they realized their disparate perspectives allowed them to explore creative solutions to the many challenges facing educators. With a shared sense of purpose and a glimmer of a concept, they reached out to friends and colleagues and assembled the consulting team that would grow into the Board of Directors for EWL.
What does EWL do?
Education Without Limits connects educators with free classroom-ready resources. The sad truth is that many educators spend hours planning lessons by simply googling for activities, primary documents, and other resources. A simple project like ResourceHQ, a curated library of the best, up-to-date, low-cost curricular resources can cut down on these educators’ planning time.
In response to months of research into the needs of educators, we have embarked on a more ambitious project: developing our own online software to answer educators’ calls for a dynamic planning tool that allows them to adapt to students’ ever-shifting needs.
We prioritized both this planning tool and ResourceHQ in response to feedback from educators in the classroom, as it is important to us to always center the voices of the people we serve.
4 Lessons about Non-profit Education Startups:
“Working with EWL is an antidote to despondency. In a world that can feel immutable, progress and change are precious. EWL is that change, and will hopefully continue to grow and positively impact the lives of teachers and their students.”
-Kelsey Anderson, Founding Board Member
1. Start from a place of shared values.
While first facing the question of what to do about the burnout that educators experienced, there seemed to be a million options and no solutions. How can a few people stuck at home best address these large systemic problems in education? It’s easy to become overwhelmed when addressing problems that feel enormous and urgent, but returning to our core values helped us stay focused on prioritizing the projects we believed would best serve classroom educators.
At our founding meeting, we established four core values: curiosity, flexibility, empowerment, and utility. We also established that our programs would be targeted at classroom educators, particularly those teaching in public schools and serving marginalized communities. Whenever we encounter one of the many challenges facing young organizations, commitment to our values and listening to educators guides us to answers that further our mission.
2. Use your network to create a team that builds on your vision.
Bringing different perspectives together has been central to our organization’s vision since day one. We sought a team of professionals in education, non-profits, and web services who shared our values and goals.
Working within our networks, we brought people together from all across the USA to collaborate with us, and soon our team coalesced. With grant writers, paralegals, educators, administrators, writers, designers and more, our team’s toolbelt has been well-equipped from the start.
“I joined EWL because I understood the passion that Rhi had when discussing the current lack of educational tools and personnel available to students, mostly in public schools. I also have been disheartened by the disparity between private and public schools, and the correlation between resources available to students and their school's tax district. I have connected with so many colleagues and friends who have the same passion to impact change and increase the educational methodologies available to students across the nation. I have not been an educator, but am excited to be useful in connecting professionals from various fields to the organization to increase its reach and contribute to the success of EWL users.”
- Oriana McGee, Founding Board Member
Encourage the people you are connected with to become involved however they can. Everyone can contribute in one way or another, and being open to new ideas and perspectives will help you achieve your organizational goals. Whether they become deeply involved in core processes, offer professional advice when it is needed, or even if they just pass along information about the organization to others, all contributions are valuable and should be appreciated.
3. Leadership skills are invaluable.
Collaboration requires delegation, and knowing how to delegate is a sign of good leadership. Though often daunting at such an early stage, delegation provides the motivation and sense of contribution that we are looking for when working toward a common goal. Healthy and balanced teamwork helps level the playing field when it comes to incorporating new ideas and perspectives into an organization’s roadmap, and people with strong leadership skills have helped to make the most of our individual skills.
As we began to break ground, natural leaders like Silvyn Tetreault shined and shared their creative vision for our organization.
“EWL has fundamentally changed the way I think about work and leadership. Empathy, self-care, and constant reassessing of one's implicit biases were built into our organization's model, and it shows. The respect and trust I am granted within our organization, particularly as a queer professional, are beyond anything I have experienced in conventional workplaces. As a member of EWL's leadership, the work I am able to produce and contribute to is superior to anything I have done previously because we mindfully foster passion for our work, and support of our team.”
-Silvyn Tetreault, Co-founder & CMO
4. Make something tangible.
When EWL was a spark of an idea, we were facing such a stupendous problem among educators: the mounting demands of teaching and the pressures that build to burnout. Moving mountains doesn’t happen all at once, even after you have a mapped plan and crew. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the inertia of the ordeal. Instead of letting indecision and uncertainty prevent your organization from moving toward its goals, it is crucial to start with a project that is within reach of your team and in line with your values. Operations costs are another consideration when starting a large project. Having something tangible to show investors and people who may support your cause is an asset in and of itself.
With our small crew, we broke down the problem of burnout among educators, the burdens teachers face in an ever-demanding and shifting work environment. Teachers shouldn't have to spend countless hours searching for during their sparse planning time. Our initial project offered a values aligned, tangible example of what you can expect from EWL: a free and easy way for teachers to connect with the many existing resources they need. As we look ahead, we shall continue to provide increasingly innovative and impactful tools to improve the lives of educators.
Education Without Limits is a nonprofit organization based in CA, USA. For information or to become involved, visit our website EWLhub.org.