Pencils Of Promise: How A $100 Investment Led To A Global Movement

by Adam Braun

On September 20, 2008, the name “Pencils of Promise” entered my head. I had a dream to start an organization and build one school somewhere in the developing world, and the thought it could actually become a reality sent a lightning bolt through my body.

I was working at Bain & Company at the time, approaching the upcoming externship opportunity that the company offered to all third-year consultants.

The externship program enabled my consulting class to work for any other company for six to nine months and then return to our jobs afterward.

I realized I could pitch Bain on doing something entrepreneurial in the form of a nonprofit – which would now be called Pencils of Promise – that would seek to build a school somewhere in the developing world.

My initial thought was rural Laos, since I had fallen most in love with Southeast Asia during my backpacking travels. Laos is also one of the poorest countries in the world that receives the least amount of international support.

Around the same time the name for the organization entered my consciousness, the 2008 financial recession ruined the market.

As someone living and working in NYC who had just turned 25, most of my friends were either already jobless or about to lose their jobs over the next six months. By most people’s accounts, it was the worst time possible to raise philanthropic capital. I didn’t disagree, but I also wasn’t about to let the economy deter me from building that one school.

So, I threw a party.

My birthday falls on Halloween, and I knew I could count on people being down to celebrate. I created a Facebook event and promoted the party, and my only request was that people give $20 at the door instead of birthday presents.

After crowdsourcing donations that night, we raised just over $8,000. It was well on our way to our $25,000 goal, which we needed to build the first school. More important, however, was the fact that at the party (the first of many Pencils of Promise parties), countless people came up to me and said they wanted to get involved in the nonprofit. I could sense they were seeking a movement to embrace and, in many ways, to find identity within.

The people who said they were interested in getting involved gave me the confidence to believe Pencils of Promise could become more than just a personal project. It could turn into an organization representative of the desires of an emerging generation (which later came to be known as Millennials).

This was a group of people who saw the world differently and felt like they could create social good not just at the end of their lives, but through their careers and the ways in which they spent their days.

Even if they weren’t working at nonprofits (at the time, most of my own network had lucrative jobs at top-tier law firms, banks, etc.), I started to realize this was a group of people driven by the idea of giving back. Even if was just volunteering on the side of their nine-to-five jobs, they were seeking ways to get involved with a cause bigger than themselves.

While raising $8,000 at my party was no small feat, it seemed like a daunting task to find a way to raise the remaining $17,000 needed to reach my $25,000 goal.

I needed those donations, and to be perfectly frank, I wasn’t getting them from people with experience in the nonprofit industry. In fact, those with experience were the ones who continued to tell me this initiative, while noble and ambitious, was going to be impossible.

I invited each person who expressed interest in being involved with Pencils of Promise to meet me for coffee.

I spent at least an hour getting to know these people one-on-one. They were often friends of friends or people who simply learned about Pencils of Promise because they saw a post that someone had put up on Facebook.

In these informal meetings, no matter where the conversations led, I always made sure I asked two questions: 1)“What are you best at, and where do your skills most align?” and 2) “What do you love most, and what makes you come most alive?”

After hearing their answers, we’d try to see if there ways they could channel their strengths into volunteer efforts at Pencils of Promise.

Through these coffee meetings, I found graphic designers who never got to work on projects they cared about because they worked at large digital agencies. I found people who were really good at building financial models, but they felt unfulfilled only modeling out the finances of multi-billion-dollar corporations through their private equity and investment banking jobs.

The designers started designing for our website, and the finance whizzes helped us build our initial finances and create financial connections for the organization. Ultimately, Pencils of Promise developed an army of incredible volunteers who felt connected to the cause and the mission. And, all of these people more or less got to know PoP through one-on-one meetings with me.

A few weeks later, I made an investment in PoP.

For $100, I ordered 40 sets of business cards with our logo and information, and they were each personalized for every individual with his or her name and title at PoP. Whether that was Fundraising Manager, Advisory Board Member or Graphic Designer, I wanted each person to feel a sense of belonging to the organization.

After the cards came, I mailed them out to all the team members. They didn’t know these cards were coming, but once they arrived, the feedback was truly incredible. They were grateful for the representation, and they were so excited about having official recognition through the organization.

The connection they felt to Pencils of Promise led to, perhaps, the most significant growth of the organization in its early stages. When they went out at night, these people – who worked at major companies like Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America and Siri Gottlieb – were not giving out their prestigious business cards from these long-established institutions. Instead, they were proudly and willingly handing out their PoP cards to the people they’d meet with and talk to. I watched this happen over and over again because their affiliation with the organization was what they were often most proud of.

Pencils of Promise was founded in an economic recession – crisis, really – and succeeded because from the very beginning, I learned how critical it was to personalize each and every individual’s relationship with the organization. At the onset, that personalization was more responsible than anything else for helping to grow the movement of Pencils of Promise.

Simply through the act of doing small things that make others feel big, even without spending much money, we were able to develop a tightly knit volunteer force that felt tremendous pride and loyalty to the organization. Through my purchasing a bunch of business cards, we extended our message to thousands of people, ultimately helping Pencils of Promise become the organization that it is today.

Three hundred schools later, we’ve provided access to education to more than 31,000 students throughout Ghana, Guatemala, Laos and Nicaragua, and we've established PoP as a leader among the innovative global nonprofits working toward sustainable social change.

I’d say that’s worth a $100 investment, any day.