Spotlight: First Book’s $14 Million Growth Campaign

‘Spotlight’ features nonprofits that are pursuing active growth capital campaigns that will enable them to scale their impact.

Growth capital campaign aims to reach all low-income communities, classrooms, and children with the books and resources needed to eliminate knowledge poverty.

Having books – at home and in the classroom – is the number one predictor of reading success. But the reality for children growing up in poverty is this: books are scarce. Forty-five percent of children in the United States – more than 30 million kids – live in low-income households. Most of these children have no age-appropriate books at home; neither their parents nor the schools and programs they attend can afford to buy books at retail prices. Studies show that in the areas of deepest poverty, there is only one age-appropriate book for every 300 children.

Bonne Ecole Elementary, a Title I school in Slidell, Louisiana, lacked the funds needed to buy books. Parent volunteer Jenny Helber was desperate to find a way to ensure that students at the school – many of whom had few, if any, books at home – wouldn’t face an entire summer without reading. She came up with the “Twelve Books” program where on the last day of school, students would get to choose twelve books to take home and read throughout the summer.

But with a severely limited budget, buying books was going to be a major challenge. The solution? First Book, an S&I 100 nonprofit that provides new books and educational resources – for free and at low cost – to schools and programs serving children in need. Jenny enrolled her school through the First Book website and with the organization’s help, was able to stretch the school’s budget enough to make sure the kids received new books that summer.

“You cannot imagine the incredible anticipation, excitement and desire of the students to have twelve books of their own to read over the summer,” said Susan Schwaner, who teaches first grade at the school.

“My son was so excited to show me the books he chose,” said Diane Ripley, the mother of one of the students. “And this is my son who ‘hates to read,’ as he says.”

By bringing together educators and program leaders in underserved communities, First Book is creating a vibrant new market that the publishing industry would not otherwise reach.  Educators in challenged communities benefit from access to new quality books and resources, and students at schools like BonneEcole Elementary benefit from ongoing access to First Book’s expanding array of materials throughout the school year.

The increased access to books and learning materials is having a measurable effect on kids. In two separate impact studies, researchers found “high interest” in reading doubled and nearly tripled in children receiving resources from First Book.  And, among groups receiving resources from First Book, 99% reported the resources allowed them to expand educational activities, and that the impact extended to the children’s homes.

Since 1992, First Book has provided more than 100 million books and educational resources to kids in need from birth through high school at an estimated retail value of $750 million. First Book distributes its books within existing educational settings and as a result, has built a network of 50,000 programs, allowing them to reach 10 million children. And interest in their services is increasing dramatically; an average of 3,500 new groups are registering with First Book each month.

To create permanent, systemic change, First Book must take its proven model to scale. While its reach is impressive, First Book only serves an estimated 4% of programs and classrooms serving children in need in the U.S. Through its growth campaign, First Book projects it can reach 80% of the targeted U.S. population of programs within a decade, and distribute over 100 million books (or the equivalent of books including digital resources) annually.


The Ask: $14 million to achieve comprehensive scaling plans, which includes digital and other content, global literature and distribution.

Amount Raised-to-Date: $2.1 million

Funder Commitments: Disney and KPMG have played lead roles in the early phase of scaling to increase operational capacity and expand the network of programs served.  The First Book campaign offers foundations and individual donors the opportunity to achieve impact at the local level by supporting classrooms and programs in their communities, and provide support for thematic content of particular interest including environmental, STEM, healthy living and other focuses.

Growth Goals and Application of Funds:

  1. Increase content offerings and launch an enhanced platform by 2014 providing a full spectrum of digital interactive learning content – e-books, research-based interactive learning games, performing arts content, mobile applications, and devices – while incorporating a powerful feedback loop to drive product decisions among publishers and other content creators.
  2. Grow the network of U.S. programs served from 50,000 to 250,000 and distribute 20-30 million books annually within 3 years.
  3. Build volunteer program to encompass a broad spectrum of opportunities including long-term, episodic, and virtual experiences that build capacity at the level of individual programs, communities, and nationally.
  4. Expand globally into two countries (targeting India and Brazil) to serve 50 million children with high-quality, culturally relevant libraries in the next five years.

From the CEO:  “At First Book, we’re working towards a new kind of market-driven solution to an old and intractable problem – how to ensure that the 30 million kids in the United States living in low-income families get the books and resources they need to read, learn, and succeed.” –Kyle Zimmer

To learn more about First Book, please visit their S&I 100 profile.