The Promise of a Pencil – Adam Braun [Book Summary]

by Nick

Adam Braun is a representative of the “Millennium Generation”, which does not have the best reputation. However, Adam is an exception.

The son of wealthy parents and a graduate of one of the Ivy League universities, he quit a well-paid job at a prestigious firm to devote himself entirely to helping those in need.

In 2008, at the age of 25, Braun founded Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit organization that builds schools, educates educators, and provides scholarships for students in the world’s poorest regions.

In “The Promise of a Pencil”, Braun talks about the quest for destiny, life lessons, and conclusions made.

In addition, he shares the unique experience of creating from scratch a successful non-profit organization, which every four days opens a new school in one of the remote corners of the planet.

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Not Like Everyone Else

Adam Braun‘s father Erwin was notable for his high demands.

He wanted his children — Adam, Scott, and Lisa — to be the best in everything. “Browns are not like everyone else,” Erwin used to say.

Other parents bought toys for their children, and Adam, his brother, and sister were given books. But the children understood that paternal exactingness and even severity are dictated by love.

“This story is about what happens when a person admits that he is capable of more, and that some things in this world can be changed without huge resources …”

While studying at school, Adam was involved in basketball. Once in a competition, he met two teenagers from Mozambique.

They were lured into the United States by the prospects of a brilliant education, but instead of a good school, the guys were in slums.

Nobody was engaged in their training, of them, they wanted to make basketball players. Adam’s parents took a lively part in the fate of these teenagers, became their guardians and resolved the issue of their education.

Through this story, Adam realized how much it means to follow a goal, fight and make sacrifices. The guys from Mozambique were not afraid of difficulties and were able to change their fate.

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In Search of a Destination

As a teenager, Adam showed a penchant for entrepreneurship.

He recorded and sold eBay discs with rare live recordings.

Then he began trading stocks on the electronic exchange, and in high school earned money in a hedge fund. It was not just about making money – Adam wanted to learn as much as possible about financial markets.

He wanted to work in this area and become a millionaire. This determined his choice: he entered the economics department of Brown University.

“We are afraid to leave a familiar environment, and that’s fine. But only exploring the unfamiliar, we stop focusing on labels that define what we are, and find out who we really are. “

In his second year, Adam watched a film about the religious traditions of different countries.

After him, the young man had an increased interest in life outside the world familiar to him. In addition, the film served as an impetus for his spiritual quest and determination of life goals.

Having decided to spend some time abroad, Adam enrolled in the Marine Semester educational program – a many-month trip on a cruise ship.

In every country where he visited during the “Sea term”, Adam asked the children: “What would you like more than anything? “The answers surprised him. “Dance,” the girl answered in Hawaii. “A book,” said a girl in Beijing. And the boy, who was begging at the gates of the Taj Mahal, said: “Pencil.”

The young man gave him a pencil, and the child’s face shone. This incident impressed Adam more. He understood, that there is hope in every pencil.

Adam decided that instead of alms, he would now give out pencils and pens to children. For him, this is a trifle, ordinary writing utensils, for them it is an opportunity to change their life.

After all, all the great people – architects, scientists, inventors – began with the fact that once in childhood they fell into the hands of a pencil.

“Maybe a trifle like a pencil … can unleash the potential of a child?”

In his final year at the University, Adam helped the Cambodia Children’s Fund collect donations in the United States.

The fund’s business card has become no less significant for him than a university diploma. After graduation, the young man traveled for four months in South America.

This journey helped him understand that even in the poorest villages, people consider their children’s education to be of the highest value.

Return to Oneself

Adam was invited to work in the New York office of the prestigious consulting company Bain & Company.

But he soon felt indifference and boredom. In addition, Adam was tormented by the fact that his life was completely subordinated to selfish interests.

And when the opportunity arose to work with a client, a charitable organization, he insisted that he be included in the team. This project allowed Adam to regain “a sense of self.”

“I was just an ordinary guy … who decided to prove that everyone can change the world, and age, status and place of residence is not a hindrance.”

Once during a concert at the New York Philharmonic, the words “pencils of promise” suddenly surfaced in Adam’s head.

He came up with the idea of creating Pencils of Promise, a non-profit organization that will build primary schools in the poorest countries. Work at Bain & Company suggested a six-month internship at any other company to choose from.

Adam decided to use this time to create his organization. After that, he planned to return to Bain & Company and practice Pencils of Promise in his spare time.

He wanted to see the meaning of his life in achieving a meaningful goal, and not in making money.

The First Step and The First School

In 2008, Adam opened a bank account in which he deposited $ 25 and registered the domain name.

According to him, everything further is a consequence of this first step.

The first fundraising event for school construction was the Halloween party and the 25th anniversary of Adam himself. More than 400 people came, the number of donations was about eight thousand dollars.

“The biggest dreams often begin to come true with small, not always intelligent actions.”

Adam decided to build a school in Laos.

He assembled a team of like-minded people and began to search in Laos for people who would help him realize his plans, he wrote letters to local educational organizations, teachers and even guides.

Most of the letters remained unanswered, and in one Adam was advised to start construction in some other country, since in Laos he was faced with many difficulties.

In the end, Adam managed to reach the right people, thanks to whom he met with officials of the Ministry of Education. Those provided a list of the neediest villages.

A school, or rather a preschool educational institution with one class and a bathroom, it was decided to build in the village of Phatheng.

Together with his team, Adam held another charity party, at which he raised more than 20 thousand dollars.

“At the very beginning, we were a rather motley company, connected by one common thread: faith in the impossible.”

The residents of Phatheng agreed to cover 10% of the costs with building materials and their labor. Pencils of Promise began to use this model later in all of its projects.

While construction was underway, Adam was looking for places for new schools and forging connections in countries neighboring Laos.

When he returned to Phatheng, the school building was almost completed. At the hotel, Adam met an energetic worker (she was doing laundry and changing clothes), who also wanted to help children. He invited her to be the local coordinator.

Future Betting

Returning to New York, Adam recruited a childhood friend to work in the organization, who began to look for people with the necessary professional skills.

Adam himself focused on the issues of positioning Pencils of Promise.

He relied on social networks. At that time, Facebook only existed for two years, and most perceived it as a media space for high school students and students.

Adam looked at social networks differently – he saw them as an effective tool to attract supporters. He also relied on the growth of charitable marketing, on the fact that consumers are more willing to make those purchases that bring social benefits.

This meant that major brands would begin to seek partners among charitable organizations. Besides,

“It happens that you ask for a sign, indicate the right direction. Sometimes a higher power answers these prayers, sometimes you have to look for an answer in yourself. But if you look well and keep your eyes open, the signs usually open. ”

By renting a camper van, Adam traveled around the United States with four volunteers.

He met with university students and told them about Pencils of Promise. Only one person came to his first presentation – a student at Chelsea Canada, who later became an active volunteer.

She told Adam the idea: to provide leadership training for young people.


The internship ended and Adam returned to Bain & Company. Pencils of Promise took part in a competition for non-profit organizations, held by Chase Bank.

According to its terms, organizations that gained the most votes on social networks could receive up to a million dollars. Pencils of Promise volunteers struggled to attract supporters on Twitter and Facebook, and she took 11th place, earning $ 25,000 – enough to build another school.

Having agreed with a company engaged in the sale of clothes, Adam received a portion of her office for free.

“Our culture is too fond of extolling the founders and CEO, although in fact, the success of the company provides the input of the first followers and preachers.”

Adam decided to quit Bain & Company and devote himself entirely to Pencils of Promise.

This was a risky step because the organization did not have a constant source of income. Logic suggested that he was making a mistake, but Adam decided to listen to his heart.

At his last expense, Adam participated in a conference for young entrepreneurs, where he actively made new friends and looked for sponsors. So he met the owner of the publishing house, who agreed to finance the construction of another school, and met people who later became members of the Pencils of Promise board of directors.

“In times of clash of priorities, you should always be guided by values, not imaginary needs. Needs are changeable and mood-dependent, and values are enduring and sustainable. ”

Adam understood that for the success of his organization to take a special place on the Internet.

Activity on social networks was not enough for this, a good site was required. According to Adam, a serious mistake of other charitable organizations was that they considered such “excesses” a waste of money.

But a good site cost 100 thousand dollars. Pencils of Promise did not have them. Through his acquaintance, Adam contacted the CEO of a major digital technology agency that developed sites for the Clinton Foundation and Bacardi.

He sincerely became interested in the organization of Adam and agreed to allocate 150 thousand dollars for the development of the site, as well as to join the board of directors of Pencils of Promise.

“I sincerely believed that the status of a person on a Facebook page is a valuable resource. “We very early put on the fact that human activity on social networks is an important currency.”

Adam Scott’s brother, Atlanta’s biggest nightclub promoter, introduced him to an aspiring musician named Justin Bieber. Scott was engaged in its promotion.

Together with the Browns family, Justin went on a two-week trip to Africa. Becoming a celebrity, Bieber began to actively promote Pencils of Promise ideas on social networks and attract his fans to participate in the youth movement of supporters of the organization.

A Story for Success

The pencils of Promise became more and more famous. Adam could already afford to pay a salary to full-time employees. The organization employed 20 people, including volunteers and trainees. Now her office was located in Manhattan.

“Our belief in the power of social networks and the rise of social marketing has finally begun to pay dividends. We began to cooperate with brands, and this led to a lot of money. The support of Justin [Bieber] helped even more … ”

At one time, Adam decided that he would not tell the story of Pencils of Promise to reporters until three conditions were met:

  • 1) he could tell a really amazing story that readers would want to share with friends;
  • 2) the organization will have a great site;
  • 3) the organization will have personnel and infrastructure. All this was required in order to get the most out of the publication. Adam understood that it was important not only to arouse a desire among readers, for example, to make a donation but also to help them realize this desire.

“Most people can’t wait to tell others about themselves, but we waited for a stunning story, staff and website to develop, and thanks to this we were ready to turn people’s interest into action.”

Thanksgiving in 2010, the front page of The Huffington Post published an article about Pencils of Promise.

The largest television channels phoned Adam for an interview, popular publications, including Vogue and People, were interested in her work, major brands offered sponsorship.

Adam was invited to speak at various events. At a closed conference for leaders of leading advertising agencies, he made a speech, after which the audience applauded standing.

Charity Business Approach

Adam Brown highlights five key components of Pencils of Promise’s organizational culture: “happiness, friendship, reward, improvement, and joy.”

In order to instill these values into the employees, he organized monthly meditations in the office and launched a “jukebox”: every day one of the employees selects a song, talks about his choice, and then puts it on. Each month, each employee must handwrite two thank notes: professional and personal.

“Only you can’t constantly say to yourself:“ I’ll start tomorrow. ” There are too many problems in the world, and you are too smart and capable to ignore them. Your time is now. ”

Adam prefers not to call his organization “non-profit,” he calls it “goal-oriented.”

Realizing that many relate to charitable organizations with distrust, he increased the transparency of Pencils of Promise: each donor clearly understands what his money was for.

The organization collects funds for current expenses at a special charity event and directs the rest of the donations to school programs. Adam and his colleagues approach his work as a business.

They part with volunteers who work unproductive and use a system of indicators that allows employees to focus primarily on the result. The organization regularly invites partners to its office so that they can communicate with employees, share their experience and knowledge with them.

Crucial to the development of the Pencils of Promise was Adam’s acquaintance with Ray Chambers, a famous financier, and philanthropist.

Chambers joined the organization’s board of directors, his experience and connections helped her to reach a new level. The first three years of Pencils of Promise, it was difficult for Adam to ask people for money, he felt awkward.

At the same time, he understood that, given his occupation, his inability to ask for money was a serious flaw. Friends advised him to take part in the program, which was led by a well-known specialist in fundraising. She helped Adam deal with this problem.

By 2014, Pencils of Promise has built more than 200 schools.

It has more than 60 employees in different countries of the world.

By the end of 2015, the organization planned to build a total of 500 schools, train 1,000 teachers and provide scholarships to 10 thousand students.

The story of Adam Brown and his “hopeful pencils” is a prime example of what inspiration means.

It convincingly proves: to change the world for the better, it is not necessary to have huge resources.


  • Back in school, Adam Brown, the founder of the nonprofit organization Pencils of Promise, concluded: if a person is not afraid of difficulties, then he can change his fate.
  • The idea of a name for the organization of Adam was prompted by a poor Indian boy who dreamed of having a pencil. Adam realized that such a trifle can change someone’s life.
  • Adam spent his first fundraising for building a school in Laos at a party dedicated to his 25th birthday and Halloween.
  • When building schools in the poorest countries, Pencils of Promise always makes a condition: 10% of the costs should be covered by local residents with their labor and materials.
  • Adam initially understood that the success of Pencils of Promise will largely depend on the organization’s presence on the Internet, on a good site.
  • Adam differently than other benefactors appreciated the potential of social networks. He began to actively use them to attract supporters.
  • It is important not only to arouse people’s desire to help but also to give them the opportunity to fulfill this desire.
  • Pencils of Promise places a lot of emphasis on transparency: donors know exactly what their money was spent on.
  • Fundraising courses helped Adam cope with his inability to ask for money.
  • Pencils of Promise uses a business approach in charity work.


Why You Should Read “The Promise of a Pencil”

  • It is one of the best books for the leaders of charitable and non-profit organizations
  • You will learn how you can change the world even without start-up capital
  • You will be inspired and ready for actions after reading this book

This book is available as:

AudiobookeBook | Print