UNITE FOR LITERACY Unite for Literacyis a great organization that makes books available to children in the United States and around the globe. They provide no-cost reading material to emergent readers – both young kids and those learning a second or third language.

A great concept for a charitable non-profit, right? Sure. But these folks have a unique for-profit business model that’s part of an emerging trend in companies which do good while making money.

Michael McGuffeeI had a chance to talk this week with Unite for Literacy’s CEO, Michael McGuffee. He, Mark Condon and Kurt Hoeven started this company a couple of years ago, based on 20 years of powerful experience working with families who live on Native American reservations. They saw firsthand what happens when kids lack a connection to written language, whether English or their mother tongue.

Unite for Literacy is out to transform the world from the inside out. What does that mean? Well, it starts with the individual, the family, and the local community. Right now their strongest presence is around northern Colorado (not surprising since Fort Collins is the company’s home base) and they’re rapidly expanding to other communities in Colorado.

Fort Collins is a fairly affluent community. But you might be shocked to learn that we are in many ways a book desert: the vast majority of homes have only handfuls of books, if that. It’s a crucial issue, because kids’ ability to learn is based on seeing a variety of books at an early age, becoming engaged, and feeling a comfortable fluency with the written language. After all, 99% of the internet’s content is in written form, and reading is a core skill for every part of life.

UFL_bookshelfUnite for Literacy is giving away books to children, both in printed and digital form, with narrations, forever. So clearly they’re not making money off of their readers.

Instead, they work with an ever-growing list of sponsor companies to develop content which is accessible, relevant, and engaging. With an incredibly low-cost publishing model, they are able to help companies improve the lives of thousands of children at a time. Their sponsorship message can be targeted toward certain communities.

Their sponsorship message can be targeted toward certain communities, but this isn’t obnoxious banner advertising or inappropriate product placement. They work closely with sponsors who want to support certain kinds of content, even helping them to develop appropriate learning material. I find that one of my Rotary colleagues is sponsoring a bird book, and a local market sponsors a book about healthy eating.

The_birds_I'll_seeYou might be surprised to see the degree of linguistic and cultural adaptation taking place. For instance, this bird book is currently narrated in 14 languages. Why? Because multi-lingual families can help children (and parents!) learn English through page-by-page narration in their native tongue.

This is what you can do when you have a fast-moving organization, great sponsorship, a well designed digital platform, all aligned around a powerful vision and mission.

Go and check it out – it’s free! You don’t have to create an account or log in. And it works well even on a tablet or smart phone.

Michael’s challenges at this point start with just getting the word out. He’s finding that the for-profit model can throw people off. Companies and organizations might be less willing to contribute to the cause if they can’t write it off their taxes.

But it’s really not about having a tax write off, is it? It’s about investing in the future of our communities, one person and one book at a time.