The Promise of a Pencil: An inspiring book that changed the way I think about raising money for charity


The Promise of a Pencil is written by Adam Braun, the founder of Pencils of Promise, a non-profit (or rather a “for purpose”) organization that builds schools and trains teachers in developing countries.

In the book, Adam talks about how at the age of 25, and starting with only $25, he started Pencils of Promise and turned it into a global organization that in just five short years, built more than 200 schools in developing countries.

There are 30 chapters in the book, with each chapter representing a different mantra, or life lesson. Adam tells his story through these mantras, and the lessons he learned along the way. While I enjoyed all the mantras in the book, here are some of my favourite ones:

  • Get out of your comfort zone
  • Do the small things that make others feel big
  • Big dreams start with small, unreasonable acts
  • Practice humility over hubris
  • Happiness is found in celebrating others
  • Surround yourself with those who make you better
  • If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough
  • Make your life a story worth telling

The one thing in the book that resonated with me is how it changed the way I think about raising money for charity.

I enjoy organizing events, like musical concerts or parties, to raise money for charity.  However, I absolutely hate asking people to donate money to a particular cause.

I was faced with this situation last year when raising money for the Ride the Rideau, a 100km bike ride in support of cancer research at the Ottawa hospital. Each participant is required to raise a minimum of $1500. The first year I did the Ride the Rideau, I simply threw a fundraising party in the party room of my condo and it was easy: get 150 people to attend and charge each person a $10 “cover”,  and you’re done. However, following a Halloween party that went sort of out of control, I was asked to not throw any more parties in the party room (ok I was banned). So without any ideas, I had to raise money the old fashioned way: by asking for donations.

My plan consisted of emailing all my good friends individually and asking for donations. I hated doing it, and cringed as I sent each email. I didn’t post anything on Facebook asking for donations. I didn’t even ask members of my own family.  Having said that, I was touched by everyone’s generosity and eventually reached my goal.

So how does this relate to the book?

When starting Pencils of Promise, Adam raised money by organizing parties and events (although obviously, on a much larger scale). In fact, most of his donations when he was starting out came in amounts of $20 or less. However, as Pencils of Promise grew bigger and bigger, Adam realized that he needed to target larger contributors. However, there was one problem. He hated asking for money.

As he describes it in the book:

“I hated asking people for money. Asking people for favors made me feel beneath them. I didn’t want to ask for money unless I could reciprocate. Although I knew plenty of people who were in a position to give a generous gift – and who didn’t need anything in return – I couldn’t get over asking someone I knew to open his or her wallet and write a check. I despised the idea. But here’s the truth. I was scared. Scared to face rejection. Scared to hear no. Scared to be seen as someone who was asking for a handout. I was afraid of that moment of relinquishing control, of allowing someone to judge me. I was afraid of admitting that I couldn’t do it alone. And so I didn’t”.

At one point, while taking courses in the Exponential Fundraising program at Harvard, Adam talks with others about his inability to ask people for money and wonders to himself: “What’s wrong with me?” And that’s when he realized his problem. He was so absorbed in Pencils of Promise that he felt like he had been asking money for himself, when in reality, he was simply an ambassador for the organization and for the children the organization served.

When reading this page, I realized that my reluctance to ask for money originated from the fact that I was making it about me, as opposed to about the charity. I felt like I was personally asking for the money, when in fact, the money was for the charity and the great work that they do.

I’m not sure whether I will ever get over my reluctance to ask for money for charity, but it has changed the way I look at the issue. And those of you who share my reluctance to ask for money will perhaps look at the issue differently as well.

Thanks for reading!


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