Exclusive Q & A with AFP Midwest Conference Keynote Speaker, Adam Braun


Pencils of Promise founder and CEO and New York Times best-selling author Adam Braun will open the 2014 AFP Midwest Conference on Philanthropy with stories and lessons from a movement that has taken both the non- and for-profit worlds by storm. Dubbed by Entrepreneur Magazine as “a rockstar in the non-profit space,” Braun is sure to inspire and provoke with his session, For-Profit, For Purpose: New Currency in a Borderless World on November 5.

Recently, AFP Chicago spoke with Braun to gain a sneak peek into what he has planned for the conference. Read on and discover how he finally became a successful fundraiser and why we should avoid the term “non-profit” when describing our mission-driven organizations.

AFP Chicago: Since 2008, Pencils of Promise has grown from a mere $25 investment to an organization of 80 employees, 20,000 students, and 200 schools across four countries.  Many non-profits only dream of achieving such accelerated growth. To what do you attribute this success? 

Braun: The key to our growth has been the connectedness we're able to provide to any individual, regardless of age, status or location, to the work itself on the ground. By enabling 100% of online contributions to go directly towards programs, (we cover our overhead through private donors and corporate support), and bringing the work to life through digital and social media, we've built a deeply engaged community that holds us accountable to the results they've come to expect from PoP.

AFP Chicago: On November 5, you will launch the AFP Midwest Conference on Philanthropy with your talk, “For-Profit, For-Purpose: New Currency in a Borderless World.” Describe how you developed this term “for-purpose,” and how it differs from the more familiar “non-profit.”

Braun: I personally hate the term "non-profit," as it does a massive disservice to the industry and everyone that works within it. We do this work to maximize impact, so I wanted to challenge ourselves and the entire industry to change our words and change our worth. "For-purpose" was born in late 2011 and has taken on a life of its own ever since. In the talk I'll really expand on its implications for the non-profit and for-profit sectors.

AFP Chicago: Your book, The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change, describes some of the roadblocks you faced while developing Pencils of Promise, one of which was a fear of soliciting donations. What are some challenges you faced early on as a fundraiser, and how did you ultimately overcome them? 

Braun: I never got into this space to ask for donations. I started PoP to impact the lives of children seeking educational opportunity. As we grew and became an organization that raised millions of dollars annually, I realized how important it was for me to be comfortable asking for funds for our work, and only became comfortable as a fundraiser once I admitted it as a personal weakness. I cover that full experience in a chapter called, "Vulnerability is Vital" in the book.

AFP Chicago: In your view, what can fundraisers do today to make their organizations more successful in this ever-changing non-profit landscape?

Braun: Every single person needs to find a way to explain their unique journey, and why it's led them to believe so deeply in the proven work of their organization. You must begin with great storytelling, and then back it up with legitimate data to be an effective fundraiser in the modern environment.

AFP Chicago: In a recent interview, you mentioned that you’ve learned over time that the most powerful way to engage someone is to appeal to their own self-interests. How can fundraisers do this without sacrificing their own organization’s goals and missions?

Braun: Listening intensely is a far more valuable skill than speaking immensely, so simply asking questions and listening with real interest in the person on the other side of the table is an often undervalued component of successful fundraising. Understanding the preferences of the donor is just as important as knowing your own personal agenda in creating a great partnership that will stand the test of time.

AFP Chicago: What are three takeaways you hope to leave with attendees after your talk on November 5?

Braun: There's a lot more than three takeaways, but a few key ones would be that the restless voice inside should be listened to, that it can be activated in ways big and small, and that in the words of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, "If your dreams don't scare you, then they're not big enough."

Register Today

Check your inbox next week for the inside scoop on one of the conference’s planned feature presentations hosted by Jamie Phillippe, Vice President of Development and Donor Services, Chicago Community Trust and Edith Falk, Chair, Campbell & Company! 

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