The Promise of a Pencil by Adam Braun
In The Promise of a Pencil we learn about Adam Braun’s struggles to establish his NGO, Pencils of Promise, and raise funds, as well as other life lessons.
Adam Braun. A young man from the U.S, known especially for his NGO, Pencils of Promise. Born into a wealthy Jewish family in New York, he enjoyed financial stability from a young age, something that enabled him to travel and learn about the poorer areas of the world.
During a semester abroad, Braun was moved by the simple requests of the local children, especially one boy in India who asked for him a pencil. Braun gave him his own, and the foundation for Pencils of Promise was laid. He promised himself that he’d work hard and make enough money to be able to dedicate himself fully to this cause. He dreamed of providing an education to poor children in developing countries.
NGOS WITH PURPOSE / THE PROMISE OF A PENCIL
In The Promise of a Pencil we learn about Braun’s struggles to establish his NGO and raise funds. His constant desire is to be more involved in helping others, rather than working a 9-to-5 job on Wall Street. Also, Adam Braun founded the concept of “for-purpose”. By this, he intended to help NGOs get rid of the expression “non-profit”, which usually creates a negative impact and belittles the efforts they make.
Braun comes from a family of Holocaust survivors; the relationship with his grandmother is especially touching. And the impressive part is that after so much hardship, his parents tried their hardest to ensure that their children (Braun has four siblings) would want for nothing.
Braun’s aware of the sacrifices and hard work his family endured in order to achieve their privileged status. He feels blessed to have been born into that environment but, mindful his family’s painful past, he also wants to give something back by helping others. He was only 24 when he started Pencils of Promise.
One of the first schools he built was named after his grandmother, who was very touched by his gesture:
“When you come from a lineage of Holocaust survivors, you grow up with an understanding that everything was once taken away from your family.”
In The Promise of a Pencil, Braun explains how his journey began whilst he was still at school. He had the opportunity to study a semester overseas, visiting a lot of poor countries and areas. Places where children didn’t have classrooms and were just scribbling words in the shade of a coconut tree.
As a small project he started asking the children what their biggest dreams were, and what they wished for.
He was amazed to find out the little things they needed in order to be happy. Some answered that they wanted to be able to dance. Others said they wanted books, or even just a pencil. He was so surprised by these answers that he started giving out pencils; kids would immediately start writing or drawing with them.
Braun soon realized that his plan to tackle the problems he was seeing only after he became very rich was not feasible. He wanted to get involved, now. But his job seemed to stand in his way.
In the beginning, he tried his hardest to challenge himself and divide his time between work and fundraising for his NGO:
“I began to see that success in life isn’t about conforming to the expectations of others, but about achieving personal fulfillment.”
What I particularly liked about this book was the description of the steps that Braun took in order to achieve success in his NGO. He started with few resources but he wasn’t afraid to invest the money he had, throwing fundraising parties or taking sponsors out to dinner.
This is a valuable lesson in any field: you need money to make money.
Another thing Braun achieved was becoming a social media sensation with his NGO. Yes, it’s true he had the help of a global superstar like Justin Bieber (his older brother, Scot ‘Scooter’ Braun, is Bieber’s manager). But mostly it was plain hard work, and involved a lot of people. Being able to inspire so many youngsters to get involved and participate in fundraising campaigns is a great asset for a small NGO.
In a short amount of time, Adam Braun realized that he would need to become involved full time if he wanted to make Pencils of Promise huge. He also needed to cover costs for employed staff.
In order to be very transparent about donations to his charity, he established a system where the money goes directly to beneficiaries and towards building the schools.
He organizes a big gala every year and uses the money raised to cover the administrative costs of Pencils of Promise; the rest is invested in their projects. This is a great thing to achieve, and it offered Braun the possibility to be involved full time with his charity.
Braun describes how his relationships with other businessmen changed after opening his NGO. Before, he was seen as a promising, successful, young Wall Street guy. Now, he saw that as soon as he mentioned the non-profit, people looked down on him, as if he was begging for their money and attention.
So Braun decided to change this perception. He started to advocate his cause as being a “for-purpose” one. This way, he took out the negative connotation and offered a new perspective.
I personally would love for this idea to be embraced by as many people as possible, and this shift in mentality would be great:
“Conversations began on an equal footing, but the word nonprofit could stop a discussion in its tracks and strip our work of its value and true meaning. That one word could shift the conversational dynamic so that the other person was suddenly speaking down to me.”
Another great thing you’ll learn from this book is how to dream big. After building a few schools in the first 3 years, Braun decided to go big and set up a milestone of 100 schools. He is now expanding all over the world in poor areas.
“Change doesn’t happen through hard work alone. It requires strength of imagination.”
The awesome thing is that the communities in which he is building are involved in the process. They have to help by providing at least 10-20% of the costs to build the school. It can be either land or helping with the building. The national governments provide teachers, and Pencils of Promise trains them. It’s a group effort, because people want their kids to have a better education in order to have a better life.
The Promise of a Pencil can restore your faith in humanity. If a gesture as simple as handing out a pencil can make a child smile, if a person can change and adapt their entire lifestyle in order to build schools in remote areas, that’s proof that we can become better.
We can help each other and build a better world for our children.
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