Pencils of Promise
Melanie Stevenson
Chief Operating Officer
"At Pencils of Promise, we apply business principles to everything we do. All decisions are backed by data. We invest in talent and systems. We set and hold ourselves accountable to ambitious goals. It's the only way to create real change."

How did you become a person who is clearly purpose-driven or committed to giving back? Was it something your parents taught you? Was it something you learned in school? Was there a moment when you remember learning the lesson of giving back or was it more of an evolution?

It was definitely an evolution for me. I think we're all born with a natural desire to give back and a drive to fulfill a larger purpose. That purpose is defined differently for everyone through our life experiences. I was lucky enough to have had a childhood where I was exposed to inequality and a family that took the time to explain it to me. I was a Girl Scout and I went to a very wholesome summer camp. Both of these communities reinforced kindness and generosity as core values. I pursued volunteerism throughout middle, high school and college and was supported by my family and friends to do so. I watched a lot of Oprah and Ellen. I studied Ethics in college. When it came time to think about a career, I figured that if I was going to spend the majority of my fleeting adult life at work, I wanted it to be something that made the world a bit brighter - more just and joyful. All of these moments added up to this decision and I'm so grateful that they did.

Pencils of Promise is fortunate enough to have numerous corporate partners: Warby Parker, Goldman Sachs and Microsoft—to name just a few. Clearly, Pencils of Promise has benefited from such organizations’ support. How do you think these organizations have benefited from working with Pencils of Promise? How do you think it has positively impacted their brands?

All of our corporate partnerships are designed with both parties' priorities in mind. Whether a business wants to bring their core values to life, reach a specific audience with an inspiring message or find a way for their employees to unite around a shared purpose—our corporate initiatives are not viewed as a win unless we help our partner reach their goals.

While we realize you highly value all of your corporate partners, can you speak about just one and tell us what makes that partnership so strong? What has this corporate partner done right? What can other corporations—corporations eager to begin forming strategic alliances with organizations like yours—learn from what this corporate partner has done well?

One of our most successful partnerships is with Chegg, a company that removes the obstacles between students in the US and the education they seek. Chegg accomplishes this through scholarships, study help, text book rentals and more.

First and foremost, Pencils of Promise and Chegg share a fundamental belief that everyone has promise. Our businesses exist to remove the barriers that stand between every young person and access to a quality education. That shared purpose led to an authentic and deeply rooted approach to partnership. We explored both parties' priorities and collaborated on solutions.

They became a presenting sponsor of our Back to School campaign last year, matching every action taken on social media with a US $10 donation toward scholarships for Pencils of Promise students around the world. Because of Chegg, opening your wallet wasn't the only way to make an impact. Ambassadors for social change spread the word about access to education (yielding 180 million social media impressions) and, together, we sent 750 students in need back to school.

We also designed a once-in-a-lifetime internship opportunity. Eight lucky students will spend a week in Pencils of Promise’s offices in New York, learning the ins and outs of a for-purpose company. Then, they will travel to Guatemala to experience our collective impact firsthand. The internship takes place in July and we can't wait.

The learnings from our partnership are many, but it starts with aligned values and a willingness to treat your corporate partners’ priorities as your own.

We imagine that, along the way, there were some corporate partners where the partnership did not work out as well as you might have hoped. What, in your opinion, caused the partnership to flounder? In hindsight, what could Pencils of Promise have done differently? What could that corporate partner have done differently? How can corporations—corporations eager to begin forming strategic alliances with organizations like yours—learn from what this corporate partner did not get right?

Some of our less successful partnerships have resulted from misaligned, or unclear, expectations. We now prioritize laying out all partnership elements and each party's deliverables in writing before launching any partnership to ensure that we're on the same page before getting started. We're open and honest about what we can and cannot promise. This ensures that no one walks away disappointed.

I encourage all corporations seeking partnership with nonprofit organizations to be transparent and specific about their goals for partnership—and to ask that the nonprofit organization do the same. Though the outcome of a charitable partnership is unique, it's important to treat these partnerships as you would any other business relationship.

Let’s assume a recent college graduate is reading this Q&A and he/she is someone who has the urge to follow your lead and make an impact. What are some things you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out?

I wish someone had told me how important it is to treat nonprofits like a business. I think my first ever grant application said that we would measure the effectiveness of our programs based on the joy created. Now I look back on that and laugh. At Pencils of Promise, we apply business principles to everything we do. All decisions are backed by data. We invest in talent and systems. We set and hold ourselves accountable to ambitious goals. It's the only way to create real change.

The theme of this report is “the power of participation.” How have you ensured that your key stakeholders—employees, donors, corporate partners—actively participate in the Pencils of Promise mission? How do you maintain a strong level of engagement?

We invite all supporters who fund a full school, or who make an equivalent donation, to join us on a trip to the field. We've been able to bring many of our partners to Laos, Guatemala and Ghana to experience our work first-hand. We also bring every staff member to the field within their first year at Pencils of Promise. On each of those trips, we cultivate a two-way dialogue. We want to learn from our stakeholders' observations of our work and find ways to make it even stronger.

With external stakeholders we focus on the ways that they can help strengthen all areas of our work. For example, we invited representatives from many of our partner companies to our "brand hack," hosted and facilitated by Interbrand. Our goal was to learn from their branding and marketing expertise and collectively build the Pencils of Promise identity.

Each stakeholder has a unique perspective and expertise to offer. We cherish the value of the whole person, not just the value of their financial contributions.

Pencils of Promise highlights the importance of setting ambitious, but attainable, goals. What are Pencils of Promise’s goals for the year ahead? What is next for the organization?

We have some ambitious goals to reach by the end of 2015. Our sights are set on building 500 schools, training 1,000 teachers and having 10,000 students each in our WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) and scholarship programs.

We've also started running pilots of education innovations in Pencils of Promise schools. The future of education will look very different than it does today. We are committed to testing and delivering the most effective programs in order to increase the quality of education around the world. Right now, we're testing e-readers, interactive audio through smartphones and "literacy kits" for teachers. (These kits contain phonic games, books and creative learning tools.) We're really excited to see how these innovations move the needle in student achievement, and then take the most effective programs to scale.

Melanie Stevenson

Click here to read about Interbrand’s recent trip to Guatemala with Pencils of Promise.