The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change
Author: Adam Braun
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, 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. However, 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 surprised 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 when I drove back three hours later, and 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, and it does 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.