Erin Stewart — Social AdVentures
Just before the start of the school year, Teresa Danks, a third-grade teacher from Oklahoma, took to panhandling in order to pay for her classroom supplies. Standing at a traffic intersection, Danks held up a sign that read, “Teacher needs school supplies! Anything helps.” To Danks, this desperate act felt justified—she told The Washington Post that at least $2,000 of her $35,000 annual salary goes directly to items both she and her students need in the classroom.
Like Danks, most American teachers buy classroom supplies with their own money, spending an average of $500 a year, according to the Education Market Association. Overall, teachers throughout the U.S. spend $1.6 billion a year on materials that schools cannot budget for and low-income students can’t afford. And there are many, many low-income students: 21 percent of American children live in households with incomes below the poverty threshold and, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 43 percent of children live in families that struggle to pay basic expenses, including things like food, clothing, and insurance, not to mention paper and pens for school.
Justin Wolff co-founded stationery company Yoobi in 2014 on the premise that “access to fundamental school supplies should be within reach of all kids, no matter what ZIP code they come from.” If kids and schools can’t afford stationery, he says during a phone interview, teachers shouldn’t have to pick up the tab, either.
Yoobi’s business model promises that “each and every one of us can make a difference” when it comes to addressing these school-supply shortfalls, says Wolff. For every Yoobi item purchased, a basic school supply is donated to an in-need, elementary school classroom—things like pencils, glue sticks, erasers, rulers, folders, crayons, and colored pencils that are often needed for lessons.
Yoobi identifies classrooms in need of supplies with the help of its non-profit partner, the Kids in Need Foundation. Donations are sent to schools where 70 percent or more of the student body come from low-income families that qualify for free or reduced cost lunches under the National School Lunch Program.
In its first year of operation, Yoobi donated supplies to half a million students. “This year, for the first time—and after only three years of being in business—we’ll provide over a million kids with free sets of school supplies in a single school year,” says Wolff. In 2015, Yoobi expanded into Australia, where one in seven children live in poverty and don’t have access to basic school supplies. In the coming years, they hope to reach five million students in the U.S. alone, as well as others worldwide.
“Success, to me,” says Wolff, “is measured by impact created. Period. While I care about the number of dollars coming in from a [business] sustainability perspective, the numbers that I review each week focus on units sold, so that I know how many units [I can] donate.”
According to the Kids in Need Foundation 2016 Impact Report, when students have the basic learning tools they need, it has a measurable, positive impact on their confidence and engagement in school. Ninety-four percent of the 10,000 teachers surveyed reported a significant or immense increase in class preparedness when their students were provided with adequate supplies, and 82 percent reported a similar increase in classroom participation. Also, 71 percent of teachers reported significant improvements in attendance and 60 percent in homework completion. Overall, being able to access supplies meant that there was more time for students to learn, and they were more focused on their learning. Research from the University of Nevada supports these conclusions. Through an analysis of survey data from almost 16,000 students, they found that access to classroom supplies was a major predictor of improvement in children’s self‐control and behaviour over their time at school.
Yoobi’s donated supplies are “a game-changer for teachers, students, and parents in high-poverty elementary schools,” Wolff says. “We receive hundreds of letters from students and teachers from across the country thanking us and letting us know what a difference our supplies made.” Some of those students even compare it to getting presents during the holidays or their birthday.
Wolff says rather than being a burden, there is a business upside to the company’s social mission: it makes consumers want to get involved. Their donations help Yoobi, available at Target stores as well as online, stand out in a competitive stationery market dominated by huge corporate players.
Other businesses can also fulfil their own social missions by buying office supplies through Yoobi’s B2B program. This works in much the same way as the consumer side of the business—a company buys supplies from Yoobi, and for each item bought, another gets donated. For offices that want to be more hands-on, Yoobi’s special backpack drive program has participating businesses collect backpacks full of supplies, which are then given to schools. “It allows employees to stuff the backpacks themselves while ensuring kids receive the tools they need,” says Wolff. “This is a great way for companies and organizations to create impact simply by buying the same items they’re already purchasing through a brand that gives back.”
Even with charitable efforts like Yoobi’s, classroom supply shortages aren’t going away anytime soon—but awareness of the issue is growing. After her panhandling stunt received national press attention, Danks, the third-grade teacher, started a GoFundMe campaign that has since raised tens of thousands of dollars for her classroom. “I’m just one of many voices. I just tried to do something to stir some conversation,” Danks told NPR in a recent interview. “I’m overwhelmed, and thrilled that people are listening because it is a problem across our nation.”