Pencils of Promise: A Unique Approach to Aid


BISMARCK, North Dakota — Audacious. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Leslie Engle Young, chief operating officer at Pencils of Promise, says this word would best describe the organization. Starting with only $25 and a vision, the organization has now built more than 550 schools in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos. The willingness to take bold risks while aiming for sustainability led Pencils of Promise to establish a unique approach to aid.

Pencils of Promise’s Founding

While traveling abroad in college, founder Adam Braun met a young boy in India who changed the course of Braun’s life. When Braun asked the boy what he desired most in the world, the boy responded with a simple answer, “a pencil.” Seeing the power and promise of something as simple as a pencil, Braun left his corporate job at Bain & Company to establish Pencils of Promise with only $25.

Braun would spend the next five years backpacking “through more than 50 countries, handing out thousands of pens and pencils across six continents.” During this time, he came up with the idea to found an organization that was not non-profit, but “for-purpose.” In 2008, Pencils of Promise was founded and would go on to introduce a unique approach to aid.


From the beginning, those at Pencils of Promise have believed that education can change the world and that all children deserve access to quality education. By working in partnership with the communities, the organization works to build schools, support teachers and provide water and sanitation hygiene programming.

Education is one of the most effective ways to help alleviate global poverty. For this reason, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals include “achieving universal primary education” as its second goal. The efforts of Pencils of Promise provide a unique approach to achieving this goal.

Unique Approach

Pencils of Promise operates differently than many other similar organizations. From the beginning, the organization knew that in order to succeed in its mission, it would require active community participation both in the building of schools and in the ongoing support of the schools. This commitment to local leadership, community and government support is what Young says sets Pencils of Promise apart. “Our teams in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos are all from the regions they serve. The communities invest 20% in labor or raw material to all school projects so they are vested and have ownership.”

According to Young, teams of scouts identify communities where a project is viable, the region is stable, the need is present, there is no oversaturation of non-governmental organizations and the community supports the project. Once scouts select a community, Pencils of Promise works closely with the local Ministries of Education to support the appropriate curriculum. This unique approach to aid has allowed the organization to grow significantly, now serving more than 550 communities and 110,000 students.

Current Programs

The main focus of Pencils of Promise is to work with local communities to build schools. The organization believes that “quality physical space is critical to fostering learning.” Pencils of Promise’s unique approach to aid, however, requires the community to contribute at least 20% of the project either through labor or materials. Community members work with construction crews to build each school over the course of a few months.

Pencils of Promise does more than just build schools though, the organization also runs several essential programs.

  • Teacher Support Program – Pencils of Promise works with teachers to provide them with innovative approaches to curriculum. This program also unites teachers through workshops to teach and practice skills. “One-on-one coaching sessions” follow the workshops to reinforce the training. To date, the program has held more than 13,500 coaching sessions.
  • WASH – Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs ensure a “safe and healthy” school environment by establishing infrastructure, supplying water filters and educating people on good hygiene and health practices. Through this program, more than 800 water filters have reached communities in need.
  • Going Beyond the Build – After the schools are built, Pencils of Promise partners with Ministries of Education to “identify communities with a high need for investment in infrastructure.” Pencils of Promise also works with the community to help them achieve the goal of contributing 20% to the project.


The organization places a priority on transparency and ensures that donors know exactly where their money is going. Young explains that the organization’s funding comes from individual donors, corporate support and foundations. Increased funding allows the team to reach more people with sustainable solutions. When individual donors make a donation, the organization assures them that 100% of their contribution goes directly to funding the educational program. This is because all operational costs are covered by corporate and foundation funding.

Looking Ahead

Braun’s bestselling book, “The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change” provides detailed insight into the history and success of the organization. The audaciousness of Braun and the team at Pencils of Promise gave the organization the ability to turn only $25 into an impactful initiative with a successful and unique approach to aid. Serving more than 550 communities, every day the organization works toward reaching its goal of ensuring every child has access to quality education.

– Taryn Steckler-Houle
Photo: Flickr


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