A young boy sits on the streets of India, begging, when Adam Braun spots him. It is 2006, during a post-college trip, and Braun decides to approach the child, asking him a simple question: "If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?" His greatest desire, it turns out? A pencil.
Braun then reaches into his backpack and gives the boy just that. He watches as joy spreads across his face. In that moment, Braun realizes that this simple act of kindness has handed a child so much more than just a writing implement—but also, immense possibility and promise in a world where 250 million children cannot read or write and will never get the chance to go to school.
That day, the idea for Pencils of Promise was born.
Founded by Braun in 2008, around his 25th birthday and with just $25, the goal was always simple: to increase literacy around the world by building schools and providing educational programs for those schools. In recognition of its work, Pencils of Promise has been selected as the recipient of the 2016 Brand Save Award, recognizing organizations that do good. Past honorees include (RED) and Every Mother Counts.
At the outset, Braun had the idea to build a school in honor of his grandmother on her 80th birthday. But after starting the project, the mission soon changed.
"Once I got into the community and identified the first place to build that school, then I realized it wasn't about my relationship with my grandmother. It was about the young boys and girls that were going to be able to attend school and have access to education," explains Braun.
To date, PoP has constructed 365 schools in four countries (first Laos, followed by Nicaragua, Guatemala and Ghana), serving some 35,000 students. But beyond that, the charity provides a lasting plan for schools to succeed by the way of materials and equipment—including tech devices each stocked with more than 100 titles, in local languages and English.
PoP programs have delivered measurable and impressive results. For example, PoP-supported third- and fourth-graders in Ghana saw 151 percent better improvement than their peers in early reading indicators, as measured by familiar word identification, according to the group.
Not only has the organization managed to bring education to thousands of children in need, it has also made a name for itself as a nonprofit that's forward-thinking, always on the lookout for ways to employ the latest technology in its mission and its marketing efforts. Last October, PoP debuted its first 90-second virtual reality film at its annual gala in New York. The video gave attendees a glimpse inside a PoP-sponsored school. Thanks to a partnership with Facebook 360, the video has topped 7 million views.
"We chose virtual reality because we've always been storytellers at heart and we're always exploring the best tools and platforms," says Natalie Ebel, director of marketing at PoP. "After trying VR, we knew there was no other platform that could fully immerse our supporters into another country and even world where they would be able to see their impact and the communities that we work in firsthand."
It has also managed to transform itself from a typical nonprofit into what Ebel sees as more of a lifestyle brand. Over the past year, PoP partnered with Stuart Weitzman in an effort to reach one of its target demos: women 20-35. The charity partnered with the footwear brand to create a limited-edition shoe. It quickly sold out online and helped build three new schools.
PoP has relationships with dozens of corporate partners, among them Estée Lauder (parent company of Clinique, a Brand Genius honoree this year), Salesforce, Google, JPMorgan Chase, the Clinton Global Initiative, Warby Parker and Creative Artists Agency.
Leveraging social media and building relationships with celebrities has also aided PoP in growing visibility.
Last year, it named Justin Bieber as its first global ambassador, with the star agreeing to donate $1 to PoP for every ticket sold from his Purpose world tour. (PoP founder Adam Braun is the brother of Bieber manager Scooter Braun.)
Says Ebel: "We're just trying to empower people of all ages to create good in a way that is transparent and really supports and unlocks human potential."
For more information or to make a donation, visit PoP's website at pencilsofpromise.org.
Check out all of Adweek's 2016 Brand Genius winners.
This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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