Breaking the Code: How Pencils of Promise Uses Tech for Social Good

05/06/2015 09:51 am ET | Updated May 05, 2016

Pencils of Promise (PoP) is a passionate for-purpose organization that delivers quality education to impoverished children. They've built over 300 schools and impacted over 340,000 lives all while pioneering the for-purpose driven organization. This new organizational model blurs the line between a for-profit and a non-profit business. At its core a for-purpose driven organization simultaneously generates profit and has social impact. I sat down with PoP's founder Adam Braun to talk about how technology is empowering what they do.


Photo Credit: Pencils of Promise

Pencils of Promise's creation was inspired by a child who wanted a pencil. What tool/device do you see being the new "pencil" for future generations?

The pencil itself represented so much historically. It was the first place people turned to create, imagine and envision a bolder future than the present situation enabled. I think the Internet is the new pencil, and I couldn't be more excited to see the amazing possibilities we'll create with it in the years ahead.

How does technology enable your mission to scale and become more effective?

This is a twofold question, as technology allows PoP to scale our mission both in the classroom and in a logistical sense.

Right now, we're not just interested in creating infrastructure but additionally in changing what a learning experience can be for a child anywhere in the world. For students, introducing technology into the classroom will allow them to have access to more educational materials, which ultimately has an immeasurable impact on their learning process. In the communities that we work in, most classrooms contain few, if any, engaging books -- without books, students don't read. One e-reader provides a student with 50 books in both English and the local language. Bringing technology into our schools allows us to level the playing field by providing students with the most basic classroom needs.

However, technology has also allowed us to scale logistically. Right now, we're using an Impact app that allows us to see information from our schools in real time, straight from the ground. We can intervene as soon as we see that a student's attendance is dropping or if a build is on hold -- technology allows us to assess and prepare for anything that comes up in the field. Everyone on our team has access to that information, thus we're able to communicate what's going on -- at all times -- in different countries within one shared platform. We're much more connected to each other and to the work that we do, and we can grow exponentially because of the lack of delay in communication.

A specific example of how technology allows us to become more effective is through a test collection software that we're currently using, called Tangerine. The software allows our technicians to take tablets into the field to administer literacy and numeracy tests to students, return to the office and sync that information straight to a central database. Here in New York, we receive the information that day. We can then analyze it immediately, as well as share it on our website to demonstrate our impact and transparency to donors. Ultimately, technology allows us to automate a lot of our processes so that across countries, everyone can stay up-to-date with what needs to happen and when it needs to happen. This allows us to spend less time on the day-to-day menial tasks and focus more on our impact and effectiveness.

Do you have any plans in the near or foreseeable future to bring your classrooms online? If so, when?

We recently partnered with Sugata Mitra though Microsoft's Work Wonders Project to bring Mitra's School in the Cloud learning platform into our PoP schools. We piloted a program called SOLE (self-organized learning environments), which uses 3G technology, in the classroom in Ghana. I believe Sugata's project is one of the most exciting and disruptive concepts in education, which is a good thing. Children who are living in rural Ghana, within 30 minutes of introducing the lesson, successfully researched a brand new topic and produced a PowerPoint to share with their classmates. Now that we've seen how well the focus groups worked out, it's given us the confidence to move forward. We'll start with Ghana, but the hope is that it's just the pilot phase. The smallest bit of technology through innovation excites our students. It genuinely allows them to see the better life that they're in school to one day attain. However, Wifi/3G/Internet is still a big challenge for us, since we work in such rural communities.

In what way have you utilized data to better reinforce an educational system for these children?

Pencils of Promise is a data driven organization. We're constantly analyzing the outcomes and ROI of our programs in order to consciously invest in what's going to have the greatest impact on education outcomes. Right now, we're using Salesforce, a central platform that allows everyone on our team real-time access to the same data. The platform provides us with the capability to visualize what's happening with all of the data that we collect, through graphs, reports, etc.

As we know too well, it's not just the physical structure of a new school that indicates success or sustainability. Along with school builds, we provide teacher support for our schools, which includes training, materials, lesson plans and teaching methodologies. To ensure our teachers are achieving positive results in the classroom and that students are actually learning and progressing, we measure the success of these schools through extensive monitoring and evaluation.

We have a Monitoring & Evaluation team on the ground in each country to test and track the progress of our students. We consistently evaluate our methodologies to make sure students achieve the best possible results, and make changes to our programming if we don't see progress. To do this, we rely on measurable data to qualify our success, and remain willing to change our goals or in-classroom methods to establish the long-term sustainability of our schools. We thoroughly track the success of our students and teachers in order to scale what works and cut what doesn't. We collect an incredible amount of data across geographies, and we've used data to centralize our work and better reinforce an education system for the children we impact.

Something as simple as a pencil can open up a world of opportunities to a child. #GiveBacktoSchool

A photo posted by Pencils of Promise (@pencilsofpromise) on

How has social media changed the way in which donations are being collected in the non-profit space?

In the nonprofit sector, I'm noticing a real shift in the industry to crowdsourcing of contributions rather than just focusing on major gifts. I started the organization with $25 and in our first two years about 98% of our unique donations were in amounts of $100 or less from young people. There's now a pervasive sense that through crowdsourcing contributions you can not only engage the masses, but raise a lot of money as well.

This past December, we ran two incredible initiatives on Twitter that speak to the effectiveness of using social media to engage our supporters. On Cyber Monday, we encouraged consumers to make a socially responsibly purchase -- for every bracelet sold, our holiday sponsor lokai donated $10 to PoP towards building a school in Ghana. The following day, on Giving Tuesday, we participated in another social activation. Instead of asking our audience for donations, we asked them give by sharing their voices. For every retweet, lokai donated $1 to build a school for children in Ghana. The result was PoP's most engaged and most retweeted Tweet, ever. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation did a full analysis of Giving Tuesday and PoP by far had the most social media reach and sentiment out of any nonprofit, which was in large part due to our social media activations.

We can connect with our supporters instantaneously through sharing photos of PoP students on Instagram, Snapchat stories from the field or even by responding to their tweets. They're able to make a real and honest connection with PoP, which makes them want to become more involved in our work and become part of the PoP story.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs who are looking to build a social enterprise/for purpose driven organization?

More and more, finding a job in a non-profit is becoming increasingly competitive. If you're trying to work for an existing charity, develop an expertise that's invaluable to the organization. If you want to launch your own charity, I would say start by working or volunteering for an established organization -- learn from the best first. Before founding PoP, I volunteered with Cambodian Children's Fund Founder Scott Neeson, a former Hollywood exec who left his job to move to Phnom Penh to build an orphanage/school for 40 kids collecting plastic from the Steung Muenchey dumpster. His work was the most heroic, trustworthy and tangible I'd ever seen.

There is an outside perception that entrepreneurs have a big break, one achievement happens and suddenly everything else seems to fall into place as a result. In reality, there are thousands of small, medium and large wins that add up to the point they have gotten to. There were times when I was launching Pencils of Promise where I felt that one thing was going to put us in a different sphere, but the reality is that we have had a lot of success and a fair amount of setbacks over the years, and the significance of the failures is just as important as the successes. There is not one thing that leads to where we are, which is why relentless conviction and an unshakable work ethic are necessary for young entrepreneurs because there is no one big break.

What is the future of the "for purpose" organization?

Today's landscape of business produces a space where an organization's success hinges more on whether they are "for-purpose" or "non-purpose." "For-profit" and "non-profit" designations refer more to the business model an entity follows than its mission. Many of today's top businesses have a mission-driven commitment to solving a societal problem, which ensure that they are giving back on a global scale.

As I've always said, PoP does not believe in the term "nonprofit." Instead, we consider ourselves a "for-purpose" organization, which I coined as the blending of non-profit idealism with for-profit business acumen. Our adaptation of the term "for-purpose" epitomizes PoP's outlook on helping others. We are driven by our results on the ground, which I think is the key to any successful organization (and person) looking to make a sustainable, lasting impact.

Back to the question that sparked the creation of PoP. What do you want most in the world?

I'd like to see a world in which we achieve greater equality of opportunity, which I believe education most facilitates. I'd also love to see my NY Knicks win an NBA Championship or my NY Jets win the Super Bowl, but that's an entirely different conversation!