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Changing the world (for real)—one school at a time

Posted by: Asher Fink on May 27, 2014

In late April, Interbrand's Tom Zara, Dominik Prinz, Asher Fink, and Kristin Reagan visited Guatemala with members of Pencils of Promise's leadership team. The Interbrand team visited pre-build sites, schools under construction, completed schools, and observed lessons in the classrooms. Below, Interbrand New York's Asher Fink answers a few questions about the trip and the Pencils of Promise mission.

A classroom in Guatemala

You were the one who connected Interbrand and Pencils of Promise initially. How did that come about?

When I first started working at Interbrand, one of the internal culture building activities that impressed me most was our World Changing Speaker series. Speakers doing world changing things come to our office, talk about their pursuits, and make it clear that, 1. we aren't doing nearly enough to change the world, and 2. we should go out and change the world. Adam, one of the biggest world changers of our generation, happens to be a friend. We went to summer camp together growing up, and I’d been tracking his success with Pencils of Promise (PoP) over the years. I knew my friends at Interbrand would be as inspired by his story as I was. So, I invited Adam to come to Interbrand and speak. As expected, his visit got us all fired up to get involved.   

Adam Braun, CEO/Founder of Pencils of Promise, came to Interbrand's New York office about a year ago. You hosted a brainstorm at your apartment the very next day. What did the Interbrand team discuss during that first impromptu meeting?

Actually, it wasn’t impromptu. After Adam’s speech, we hung out, had some beers, and talked shop. Melanie, PoP’s COO, had an upcoming offsite with the PoP team and she wanted to put brand on the agenda but didn't know where to start. So, over breakfast the next day, Dominik Prinz, Emily Grant and I mapped out the perfect exercises for Melanie to run with her team.   

Can you tell me about one or two of the exercises, and what you learned?   

Melanie asked her team to envision that, three years from now, Pencils of Promise is featured on the front page of The New York Times. What would the headline would be? This exercise often reveals the driving purpose behind an organization’s approach that makes them unique. We weren’t at the offsite to hear the answers, but Melanie shared the results with us and they were interesting. Some headlines were focused on the regions themselves (e.g., "How a young, groundbreaking organization is transforming Africa"). Some were focused on impact through sheer numbers of students reached (e.g.,"PoP educates its 1,000,000th student"). One answer I found particularly interesting described PoP’s success in cracking the code to improving education in the developing world. It spoke to the whole approach PoP takes to improving education.   

Working with Pencils of Promise

I assume you saw this in action in Guatemala?   

On our trip to Guatemala, we saw all of this first hand. We saw the smiling faces of children in the schools that PoP built, but we also saw the things that seem like smaller details but are critical to a successful and sustainable education program. We saw the community enlisted in building and sustaining their own school. We saw the use of sound-proofing techniques for the roofs that replace the corrugated tin (commonly used in rural parts of developing countries) that makes it impossible to hear when rain is pummeling the roof. We also took note of a curriculum tailored to the region—where 21 different dialects of the Mayan language make it so that teacher and student don't always speak the same language. We watched a water purification lesson that is taught because parasites taint the water they drink, which makes kids too sick to learn and often leads to them quitting school altogether. We met Jesse, the country leader of Guatemala, whose primary focus is to work closely with the communities to make sure that nothing gets in the way of the education of each child. Speaking with him and witnessing his passion and leadership made PoP’s unique approach clear to me.   

Asher and kids

What’s next in your work with PoP?   

After working alongside PoP as they developed their brand, a natural next step to strengthening and protecting the brand was to evolve their approach to partnerships. As brands continue to crawl over each other to try to get a piece of PoP’s action, they needed a plan for choosing their opportunities wisely, to maximize the effectiveness of their resources, reduce risk, and ultimately increase impact.   

We’ve been working to identify the key activities that PoP should be engaging in, the ideal partner types and the profile of an ideal partner. We also created a decision tool, in the form of a filter, that helps PoP employees deliberately manage the partnership selection and integration process. This tool is helping them streamline the process, and uncover opportunities that would have been overlooked in the past.  

Asher is Senior Consultant at Interbrand's New York office. Follow him on Twitter: @asherfink

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