Innovation Agents: Adam Braun, Justin Bieber, And Pencils Of Promise

It helps if your organization is on the radar of one of the world's—and social media's—most influential pop stars. But for Adam Braun, founder of education charity Pencils Of Promise, Bieber was just one building block.

While traveling on a Semester at Sea in 2005, Adam Braun met a boy in India. When he asked the boy what he wanted most in the world, the boy said: "A pencil." Adam reached into his backpack, pulled out a pencil, and gave it to the boy. It could have sufficed as a poignant rejoinder for cocktail conversation, but the moment stirred something deeper in Adam.

Braun went on to found Pencils of Promise, which raises money to build schools that provide basic education for preschool and primary age students in remote villages. School sizes range from 20 to 200 students. In three countries the schools have served more than 4,000 students. Last month Pencils of Promise reached a milestone, marking the completion of their 50th school. And Braun and his team of 50 (10 in New York and 40 in the field) are on track to add another 50 schools by the end of 2012.

At the heart of Pencils of Promise are members of its influential social media community—namely, one Justin Bieber, who has been a spokesperson for the organization for two years. A 2011 study revealed that on a regular basis 1% to 4% of all tweets are related to Justin Bieber. Bieber himself has 20.8 million followers, and thousands of accounts proudly state their allegiance to the teen idol. Bieber is active online and off, regularly sending out information in addition to visiting projects abroad and meeting with young supporters in the U.S.

PoP's fortune in landing one of the world’s biggest pop stars was no dumb luck. Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber’s manager, is Adam's brother. "Having Justin as a spokesperson definitely helped accelerate our growth," Adam Braun says. "Early on when he would talk about us, those fans just came to the website to check it out. To this day, if Justin decides to speak about Pencils of Promise we’ll see a flurry of digital activity. That’s really an opportunity to convert those people from Justin Bieber fans who know about Pencils of Promise to true fans of Pencils of Promise and create sustained engagement."

That drive is what makes Pencils of Promise more than a passion project by a guy with influential friends and family. As invaluable as Bieber's contribution has been, for example, it's not the linchpin of Braun's operation. He and his team have developed several social media initiatives designed to build an influential, active community. One, for example, called PoP Stars, is a web feature that highlights stories—usually found through Twitter or articles—from the organization’s supporters around the world. Every month, PoP community members can vote for the "PoP Star" of the month. Pencils of Promise claims to have one of the largest social media presences of any nonprofit started in the last four years.

Braun's career wasn't supposed to go quite like this. He grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, surrounded by people who worked in finance and hedge funds. For a long time, he thought that might be the world he would end up in as well. However, the fact that his grandparents were holocaust survivors had given Adam a special appreciation for the importance of education. Braun, now 28, said that he realized growing up that "I could enjoy the life that I had by virtue of the educational attainment that my grandparents and parents had pursued. Education was always incredibly valued in our family."

The impact of Braun’s encounter in India stuck with him throughout college. Yet two years later, when Braun graduated from Brown University, he went to work as a consultant at Bain & Company. Why? "I realized the value of building a great business," he says. "If I wanted to start a great nonprofit, it couldn’t be run by passion alone. It needed to be run with the same level of diligence, structure, and commitment to results that the best for-profits are run with. The best place for me to learn that was working at a top-tier management consulting firm."

The idea that nonprofits need to behave more like for-profits has become popular in recent years. But it is still rare for someone to take such a direct path—from for-profit to nonprofit—as Braun chose to do. But he isn’t surprised that other organizations have not followed this path model. Speaking of the nonprofit sector, Braun says, "When you’ve done anything for a long period of time it’s difficult to acknowledge, accept, and then implement radical change. It has to happen incrementally."

While at Bain, the ultimate goal of starting an education organization was never far from Braun’s mind. Finally, in 2008, on his 25th birthday, Braun launched Pencils of Promise. He put a $25 check in a bank account and threw a birthday party asking each guest to make a small donation, too, to support building the first school. That night over 400 people came, each donated around $25.

The following year, Braun left Bain to focus full-time on his nascent organization. Using what he had learned at one of the world’s leading consulting companies, he began to work on a strategy for what would undoubtedly be a daunting task. From the outset Braun aimed for a focused impact, so he chose three countries: Laos, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Even though there is tremendous international discussion about lifting developing countries out of poverty through education, these three countries—very much in need—have not received the kind of attention that some others in the developing world have. As a result Pencils of Promise sees a bigger need and the potential for a bigger impact in these locations.

In addition to their work in the three countries, Pencils of Promise has focused domestically on building a strong community of supporters. "We’ve really put a big emphasis on trying to grow our movement through digital means," says Braun. "As the world had become digitized, the nonprofit industry has seen a mandated move towards greater transparency. Donors want to see exactly where their money goes." On the Pencils of Promise website anyone can view the details of each school, when it opened, how many students it serves, the village name, the school name, and photos of the students who attend the school. From Braun’s perspective this level of detail not only provides financial transparency, but uses visuals to build a direct connection between the organization’s work and those who support it.

The skills Braun learned at Bain are still evident in all the organization’s operations. From social media to building schools, a focus on efficiency and measurement is deeply felt. The process of building each school has been refined in a business style. The first step is to identify and evaluate an appropriate site in a village for a school in close collaboration with local residents. Second, they build a physical school using local labor and local materials. Then they hire local talent to staff the schools and provide ongoing educational support to each school. Once a school is up and running, Braun has introduced a system of constant monitoring and evaluation of all schools. "If we were to see a situation where we saw a drop-off in efficacy of the programs, in attendance, or the retention of student in a school that we built," Braun says, "we would greatly prioritize the programs around community development, teacher training, and student scholarships more so than physical builds. Our commitment is not to school count, it’s to the quality of programs we deliver on the ground."

While some might see Braun as an idealist, he could just as easily be described as a pragmatist. "Making the world better is no longer a personal pursuit that lives separate from your career. Traditionally you had profit, which was your career, and then you had purpose, which might have been your family life or volunteer work. The only way the world is going to solve so many of the big global issues that we face is when those two intersect in the pursuit of profitable purpose," Braun says, emphasizing the phrase he introduced in a speech at last year’s Google Zeitgeist: "The rise of social entrepreneurship that we’re seeing right now is the most promising way in which profitable purpose can become the norm."

[Photo Illustration: Joel Arbaje]

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