While traveling in India, entrepreneur Adam Braun found a small boy begging on the streets and asked him, “What do you want most in the world?” The boy answered, “A pencil.”

Following that experience, in 2008, when he was just 24 years old, Braun started a nonprofit organization called Pencils of Promise with $25 in hopes of building one school. This year, the organization plans to build 100 schools and fund 1 million days of education for students all over the world.

Pencils of Promise operates with 10 full-time staff in New York City and 60 full time staff between the 3 countries where they currently have schools– Laos, Nicaragua and Guatemala. In just under 4 years, the organization has grown thanks to the efforts of hundreds of interns, thousands of young professional volunteers and a truly enviable social media following.

Screen shot 2012 02 23 at 10.29.36 AM 220x67 Pencils of Promise plans to build 100 schools and fund 1 million days of education this yearWith over 124,000 Twitter followers and 150,000 fans on Facebook, PoP is one of the more socially active, emerging nonprofits out there. “We have a really savvy social media team of 19-24 year olds,” says Braun. “They use guerrilla tactics to reach out to our audience and engage with other communities but at the end of the day, social media only grows if you put in the man hours to make it happen.” Braun does admit that his friendship with pop star Justin Bieber (Braun’s brother is Bieber’s manager) has certainly helped augment the nonprofit’s following. On Bieber’s sold out “My World Tour” he donated $1 from every ticket sold to Pencils of Promise, resulting in millions of dollars to build new schools.

One other clever way Pencils of Promise has reached out to its fans is through its “PoP Stars of the Week”, which highlights the success stories of those who are creating the greatest change through the organization. “We realized that for us to grow and to have a deeply engaged community we needed to highlight one individual or group who through their own personal actions is creating good for Pencils of Promise,” says Braun.

PoP Stars of the Week turned into a competition to choose the PoP Star of the Month and then PoP Star of the Year. Last year, a hardworking intern named Maya from Virginia Beach took home the prize after donating her birthday to Pencils of Promise and making a 4ft long Pencil birthday cake to celebrate.

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A “Competition of Compassion” to build 100 schools

This year, at the Summit Series Basecamp conference, Braun says “the gauntlet was thrown down” by his friend Cameron Sinclair, the founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit design firm that promises a more sustainable future through the power of professional design. Forbes caught the throw down on camera in which Sinclair challenged Braun to build 100 classrooms this year.

“The two take different approaches to building schools in areas of extreme poverty. Architecture For Humanity’s schools are higher quality, disaster resistant, using trained professionals as well as local labor and therefore cost more to build, at about $25,000 per classroom. Pencils Of Promise constructs a less expensive basic classroom at $10,000, using local labor and offers educational programs for the schools,” writes Forbes author Kym McNicholas.

“At the end of the day we acknowledged that the only thing that can come out of this is good,” says Braun. Sinclair calls the bet, that will see 200 schools built this year around the world, “competitive compassion.” The two plan to collaborate on a school together in Detroit, Michigan.

A Partnership with Playbutton to fund 1 million days of education

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To fund 1 million days of education, Pencils of Promise has teamed up with Playbutton, a New York based company that makes wearable buttons that play music. Playbutton’s CEO Adam Tichauer is a good friend of Braun’s and is PoP’s President of the Leadership Council.

Playbutton started out as a record label, finding bands and then distributing their music on the Playbutton (pictured above). It’s essentially a piece of art that adds tangibility to digital music. Tichauer hooked bands early like Florence and the Machine and The xx and his company grew into a successful marketing platform.

The two Adams (pictured below) went to Brown University together and became friends while living in New York City. “One day, Adam [Braun] came into my apartment and said, ‘Hey, do you want to build a school?’ At the time he was a consultant and I was in finance. I said, ‘That’s crazy,’ and he said, ‘No seriously, I want to do this.’ You could tell it was something he wanted to do whether I was going to help or not,” says Tichauer.

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Tichauer has been involved in PoP since day one, helping Braun out with fundraising events on a volunteer basis. Their next mission is to connect Playbutton with Pencils of Promise to fund 1 million days of education for students at Pencils of Promises schools worldwide.

Tichauer explains that Playbutton is a “For Purpose Organization”, which sits at the intersection of the for profit and nonprofit world. While they are officially a for profit, a percentage of their profits goes through a non profit organization. In this case, that organization is Pencils of Promise. Both Adams believe strongly that this collaborative model is the way of the future.

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In 2012, for every Playbutton that’s purchased, the company will donate 1 day of education to a child through Pencils of Promise. “As a company it’s inherent that we create good with everything we do,” says Tichauer.

Each Playbutton retails for $20 and can be purchased at the Playbutton online store as well as at The New Museum and Opening Ceremony in New York City. A portion of each button will go to Pencils of Promise to sustain one child per day. To educate a child for an entire year, it costs just $25.

This week, Braun is heading to Laos and will be breaking ground on Pencils of Promise’s 55th school, the 20th of 100 schools to be built this year. 2012 promises to be quite the energetic year for the adventurous nonprofit.

➤ Want to get involved? Visit Pencils of Promise to take action.

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