The non-profit Pencils of Promise was founded by Adam Braun, a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University, while backpacking across the globe. According to an account given by Braun on his website, Braun “asked a small boy begging on the streets of India what he wanted most in the world. The answer: A pencil.” Thus the pencil —a symbol of education, creativity and authority — became the namesake of Pencils of Promise, an organization that began with just $25 and the desire to build a single school in Laos.
Pencils of Promise has evolved far beyond its humble origins. The organization has built over 40 schools to date in a variety of impoverished countries, including Guatemala, Nicaragua and the aforementioned Laos. Pencils of Promise also boasts the largest social media following of any non-profit organization founded in the last four years, and as a result, has become a leader in social media engagement, sustainable development, youth empowerment and digital innovation.
How has Pencils of Promise managed to develop so quickly? Rebecca Serle, in a Huffington Post article profiling the non-profit, suggests it’s thanks to Braun. She writes “if he’s one part backpacker, then he’s four parts businessman, and in fact, he’s very aware of the stigma surrounding youthful nonprofits. It’s one of the reasons, he tells me, he decided to work at one of the world’s leading consulting firms, Bain & Company, before leaping out on his own.” The stigma Braun refers to is that non-profits run on pure passion without any practical planning, and thus are susceptible to burnout once the enthusiasm subsides. Braun’s approach to developing Pencils of Promise was to take his passion for civic engagement and blend it with his business expertise, an approach that has driven Pencils of Promise to high levels of success.
The key to Pencils of Promise’s success lies in their comprehensive approach to advocacy. They begin by sending a local team to assess the villages where they’re interested in building schools. This team interviews parents, administrators, village leaders and students in order to tailor services and resources to a particular village’s needs. Once this assessment has been completed, step two involves creating a profile for the village based on five criteria: need, sustainability, cost efficiency, impact and commitment. The third step involves creating a promise committee whose function is to maintain a close relationship with the local community, ensuring them that the school Pencils of Promise builds belongs to them, while the final step involves collaborating with the Ministry of Education to provide teachers for the new school.
Pencils of Promise doesn’t stop with building schools. They also maintain a degree of oversight over their schools to ensure their continued success through the use of educational metrics and surveys. The organization provides opportunities for anyone interested to get involved with their work by donating money. They’ve managed to humanize donations by listing how much money goes to educating a child. A donation of $25 educates a single child, while a donation $250 educations 10 children, and so on. Pencils of Promise also provides information for donors of all sorts to get involved, enabling them to create their own fundraising pages, as well as participate in trips abroad (with a substantial enough donation).
Through a unique combination of youthful zeal and business savvy, Pencils of Promise has rapidly taken the lead in non-profit international education advocacy, providing tremendous dedication and support to the communities they better, demonstrating that organizations such as theirs can not only succeed, but thrive.