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Social Capitalists

By Jennifer Vilaga

First Book

Washington, DC

Founded: 1992
Field: Literacy
Budget: $33.7 million

"The only difference between First Book and a business is what we do with the product," says Kyle Zimmer, a former corporate lawyer and now president of the Washington, DC-based organization, which enables disadvantaged children to own their first book. "The laws of economics are not suspended when you step into the nonprofit world."

To further its cause, First Book has developed partnerships with companies such as Disney, Cheerios, and Lincoln Mercury. First Book receives the money to fund its operations, and the partner companies get the publicity. That arrangement has turned countless children from low-income families into avid readers. In the past two years alone, the nonprofit donated some 15 million books to more than 800 communities.

Zimmer developed the idea for First Book while tutoring a young boy at a Washington, DC, soup kitchen in 1991. She was surprised to learn that there were few books available for such programs and began researching the problem. Several facts stood out: Access to books is a critical factor in getting children to read, few after-school programs are properly equipped with reading material, and millions of books are thrown away every year. Zimmer wondered, What if you could set up a national program that would make good use of publishers' "waste," funnel them into local literacy-building programs, and change the lives of poor children? First Book can -- and does.

  • Entrepreneurship: A
  • Innovation: A-
  • Social Impact: A-
  • Aspiration: A
  • Sustainability: A-

Since 1992, First Book has supplied books to reading programs at homeless shelters, after-school programs, youth outreach centers, and other local literacy programs for children. This is accomplished in two ways: through its National Book Bank and a "pipeline." The National Book Bank is First Book's centralized system that inventories and redistributes publishers' surplus with help from the U.S. Coast Guard and other partners. The pipeline uses First Book's network of local advisory boards to give "book grants" to the neediest of after-school programs. Such grants, sponsored by corporate partnerships, provide poor children with one book a month for up to a year. Program administrators order titles to suit specific learning topics, which lets young readers to delve into specialized subjects -- dinosaurs, for instance. The result is more elevated programs that hooks kids into the habit of reading and learning.

"There's a ripple effect," says Zimmer, 43. "Kids not only get a better educational experience, but they can take the book home and build a library. Then they read it to a younger brother or sister." Or even to a parent who doesn't speak English.

The program benefits everyone involved. The chance to own a new book is good news for poor kids who have little to hold on to. Good readers make for more informed citizens, which is good for society. Kids who read now make for future readers and book buyers, which is good for publishers. And cause-based marketing campaigns make for early brand recognition, which is good for companies partnering with First Book -- and also for First Book itself, since it guarantees funding.

That has led First Book to think of other products and services to, as Zimmer puts it, "stuff down the pipeline." Next up for 2004: First Art, a similar program distributing art supplies.


Kyle Zimmer Founder and president

Before founding First Book, Kyle Zimmer was director of state affairs for a national alliance of consumer organizations and insurance companies, where she designed and implemented legislation. Prior to that role, Zimmer practiced law, representing entities such as state and local governments, corporations, and the Navajo Nation. Earlier in her career, Zimmer worked for Ohio governor Richard Celeste, focusing on transportation and protecting natural resources. She later advised Walter Mondale during his presidential campaign. Zimmer is a member of the international board of directors for Ashoka. She graduated from the George Washington University Law Center.

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