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Philanthropy Pays Off

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Recently, after reconciling our 2003 books, I wrote a check to the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) equaling 1 percent of last year’s pretax profits. It was our second straight year of making a contribution to the NCFL.

The amount wasn’t much–maybe the equivalent of buying a new filing cabinet or a couple months’ worth of long distance. But donating 1 percent to promote adult and family literacy is something Walkabout Press will do every year we make money. Because we plan to grow and prosper, our donations will get bigger with time. (In years that we do not make a profit, we’ll provide a baseline donation.)

NCFL (www.famlit.org) is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is, essentially, to combat poverty by promoting literacy in the family.

“Welfare that works” is a simplified description of what happens when our nation’s poorest parents and children–people living in the bottom 20 percent of socioeconomic conditions–learn together. (NCFL’s research shows that dependence on public assistance is reduced by nearly 50 percent after adults complete one of the organization’s year-long literacy programs. If you like impressive facts and figures, visit www.famlit.org/research.)

I’ll spare you the public-policy, social-sciencey description of all the NCFL programs and initiatives that our dollars support. For me, it comes down to this:

Our dollars help the NCFL teach more parents to read while encouraging them to read to their children.

Mission Possible

Walkabout Press began in 2000 with this mission: to produce and sell outstanding books that deliver exactly what they promise to the reader; continue to sell year after year; and earn our competition’s respect.

From the beginning, the goal was to make money and also to give some away.

Thanks to the steady sales of Play Hard Rest Easy: New England–the first in a series of adventure travel guidebooks–and to the success of Rock Solid Golf, by Golf Magazine Top 100 Instructor Dana Rader, we made money last year. It was a great feeling to share some of that success.

It’s easy to talk about four of the “five W’s”–the who, what, where, and when–of our efforts. What’s more difficult is to explain the why, because the decision to give money away was made for emotional rather than for business reasons. In essence, it just felt and feels right.

Fortunately, we’re learning that our donations also make good business sense. Here, then, are the emotional and practical considerations to keep in mind if promoting literacy appeals to you too.

The Reads and the Read-Nots

Learning to read is an activity I’m surrounded by every day. Nearly six years ago, my son McLean was born, and three years later his brother, Elliott, arrived. (In October, we’re welcoming the last to the brood.) Almost without exception, my wife and I have read to both boys every night from the time they were six months or so old. They dig books, and their vocabularies are strong.

But also since graduating from college 15 years ago, I’ve met and befriended a number of adults–many of them parents–who have trouble reading even the simplest words. They struggle to verbalize their thoughts and emotions. When asked to read aloud, their dignity is compromised.

Aligning Walkabout Press with an organization dedicated to fostering parents and children reading together is a great first step toward bridging the gap between children like mine and those whose parents cannot read. Our efforts are limited to financial support now, but as we grow beyond a staff of three, we envision offering paid time to staffers willing to help teach adults to read through our local literacy program.

Think Big, but Don’t Forget to Act

Before I get carried away sounding too smug, know this: “Do-goodism” doesn’t come naturally to me. Thinking of other people comes naturally, but doing something about it, well, there’s the rub.

Remember the environmentalists’ call to action, Think Globally, Act Locally?

The phrase–exhausted on thousands of bumper stickers across the globe–suggested saving Earth by making small changes in our own backyards, and it played a role in shaping our company’s mission to give money away. Forget the environmental connotations of the saying. To me, it’s mostly about the distinction between thinking and acting.

When Walkabout Press began, I had more big ideas than an aspiring presidential candidate. In addition to stamping out illiteracy, we were going to revolutionize travel publishing, stand guard over the fusion of print and electronic content, and publish two or three Great American Novels. Our second-quarter plans were similarly ambitious.

Unfortunately, and also like a politician, I had too few specific plans on how to achieve those ideas. None came to pass. (Well, I do believe our Play Hard Rest Easy guides raised the bar for travel guidebooks.)

I learned–and continue to learn–that global thinking is fine, but promising ideas, like promising book proposals, are nothing unless realized.

What caused the move from thought to action–specifically, to doing something about children who are not read to on a daily basis?

In part, it was the giddy freedom that came with starting my own business: I can come to work in a pink tutu if I want led to Why can’t I make a difference by donating money to build literacy?

The Payoffs

Without too much financial (versus emotional) deliberation, the decision was made. I got–and sometimes get–blank stares when I share our 1 percent pledge. (These folks are quick to inquire about the assets–computer equipment, office furniture, backlist titles–I might sell should I “…um…choose to get out of the business.”)

In retrospect, was it foolhardy as a fledgling company in a razor-thin-margin industry to focus on philanthropy from the start? Maybe. But before you get in line to bid on any Chapter 11 goodies, consider the business benefits we’re discovering.

Philanthropy is good PR. My first inclination was not to sully our efforts by promoting them, but now I see things differently. First, by sharing our story, we raise awareness of the core issue, illiteracy, and maybe encourage other companies to do what we’re doing. Second, our pledge gives us an edge against other publishing houses pushing their news to the media. Newspapers and magazines are hungry for uplifting stories, and each time we get a story placed, Walkabout Press gets exposure.

Philanthropy drives sales. Consumers like to purchase products that meet their needs and connect them to a greater cause. When customers read our commitment on the back of our books, they get an emotional connection they may not get from a competitor’s product.

(Incidentally, I did not print the pledge on our first book. When Rock Solid Golf was nearing final production, I was standing in line at Starbuck’s behind two young women who were comparing several music CDs for sale at the point of purchase. “Look, this CD gives money to alleviate hunger in Africa,” said one. They bought the hunger-related CD. And I went home to add the pledge on all our books.)

Philanthropy sets higher goals. Because we give 1 percent of our profits away, we also raise our sales goals, which are expressed as, “This year, we want to give $X away.” As Jack Welch showed at GE, it’s possible to take aggressive sales goals, stretch them 10 percent, and nearly always meet them. We’re hoping to do that here.

Realistically, in the next five years, we may not make a profit every year, particularly when we put four or five books into production or when I make the transition to paying myself a salary. But when things look tough, instead of saying, “Let’s stop this program,” we’ll ask, “What can we do to generate more revenue and cut expenses?”

Philanthropy lowers costs. Of course, contributions are deductible and help offset our tax burden, but there’s another surprise benefit. We used to have trouble finding interns willing to work without pay. But after we began sharing our pledge more openly, we received several resumes from interns willing to work just for the experience and for being part of a greater good.

This May Be the Best Benefit

Finally, there’s another business benefit, though it’s less immediate.

By promoting literacy, we’re helping create new generations of readers who may one day become customers of ours.

And even further removed, it’s conceivable that the butterfly-wing-flapping effect of our small contribution is that we’re helping close, or hold at bay, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots–that somehow our effort may be helping maintain the social structure that supports our free-market economy.

See? Time to stop thinking and get back to acting.

Malcolm Campbell — president of Charlotte-based Walkabout Press (www.walkaboutpress.com), publisher of the Play Hard Rest Easy soft-adventure travel guides–reports that “none of Walkabout Press’s books is tested on animals.” The newest one is Play Hard Rest Easy: New Mexico & Arizona.

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