The Promise of a Pencil How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change

By: Javier Ortega-Araiza.

“What can a pencil do for all of us? Amazing things. It can write transcendent poetry, uplifting music, or life-changing equations; it can sketch the future, give life to untold beauty, and communicate the full-force of our love and aspirations”.

Adam Braun, Founder, Pencils of Promise

While traveling the world on the Semester at Sea Program, Adam Braun decided he would ask a question to one child per country: “If you could have anything in the world, what do you want the most?” The answers surprised him, as a girl in Hawaii mentioned “to dance”, another girl in Beijing mentioned “a book” and a small child in Vietnam mentioned that she just wanted for her mom to be healthy, answers that were very far away of what he confesses expected to hear: “an iPod”, “a fast car”, or “a flat screen TV”, as he narrates. Wise enough is the saying that we should ask kids if we want to know two things: what is possible and what is really important in life. It was the answer of a boy in India that would trigger Braun’s move into action, and little did that boy knew back then that his answer, “a pencil”, would be the inspiration not only for an organisation that has built 334 schools in several communities around the world that lack the basic school infrastructure, but also for a new concept, “profitable purpose”, upon which Pencils of Promise is built, that has redefined the way non-profits operate by applying some for-profit principles to maximize impact.

The story resonated with me in many ways. I recalled when I had a similar experience after a visit to a supermarket in my hometown in Northern Mexico. As I unloaded my groceries onto the conveyor belt, I was approached by a group of playful kids from an ethnic minority. It didn’t surprise me, what did was the fact that they joyfully asked if I could buy them some school material. No cash, candies, or chips, but pencils and paper to play around. I was significantly moved, and I told each one of them to grab a notebook, a pencil and some colours. The happiness of the kids was evident, and when I drove back three hours later, they were still on the sidewalk having fun with their notebooks. But more than happiness, as the book narrates, these things represent possibility, illusion, and hope. They represent the chance of a better tomorrow, that for many young generations around the world seems so distant. And they definitely show us that we have a lot of work to do.

Pencils of Promise actively tackles this work it guided by three principles that are core of the for-profit sector more than of the traditional charity: transparency, efficiency, and accountability. Pencils of Promise publishes its financials online, and proactively works to maximize the ratio of dollars that go into their core activities by reducing administrative expenses, which often consume a big chunk of the resources of non-profit organizations. The approach has worked, and so far, Pencils of Promise has had a 100% success rate according to their reports, meaning that “every school we’ve opened to date is fully operational and educating students daily”, something that every educational organisation should take note of.

The fact that Pencils of Promise has achieved such success in an industry where others haven’t (and are often criticized because of it) is a clear indicator that instead of shunning each other, the for-profit and non-profit systems could conjointly adopt principles that would help them develop and grow. In the book, Braun narrates how he came with the “for purpose” or “profitable purpose” concept, after meeting with a venture capitalist in a New York City rooftop, who according to him, changed the whole tone of the conversation after hearing that he ran a nonprofit organization. “I realized the phrase nonprofit does a massive disservice to the broader industry. It’s the only industry that introduces itself with the word non”, says Braun. And he is right. The title “non-profit” is both disarming and it distinctly points out the separation that has historically existed between the for-profit and non-profit worlds, as if it was trying to point out that making money was something that they are proud of “not making”. It’s hard to blame them for trying to mark this distance, based on all the scandals that many corporations have protagonized since we have memory. For-profit was related with greed while non-profit was related with charity. However, as Pencils of Promise has shown, the non-profit industry would benefit immensely by applying a for-profit principles framework in their operation, enabling the organisation to have a higher impact and improve significantly more lives in the process, and that beyond this, it has the potential of helping steer a whole movement based on the merger of profit and purpose, which is what we call now social enterprise: Companies trying to make impact but also looking to be sustainable. Companies and organisations that show that you can do well by doing good.

In summary, the book is a great account of the author’s quest for meaning and purpose. Pencils of Promise is not only a successful case study for both non-profit and for-profit organizations about how to lead a purpose-driven organisation, but mostly, a chronicle for all of us in a journey for passion and fulfillment, which demonstrates that, as financier Ray Chambers (quoted in the book) said, “Bliss does not come from materials or possessions, it comes from fulfilling one’s purpose in this existence”.

Originally published at on February 24, 2016.

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