What’s the value of encouraging a lifelong love of reading? It’s impossible to attach a dollar figure, but one Canadian bank spends millions each year to help make it happen.

In 2012, Toronto-Dominion (TD) Bank contributed more than C$4.5 million directly to children’s literacy and reading initiatives, among them a cross-Canada multi-author tour, literary awards, and organized reading clubs. Alan Convery, TD’s national manager of community relations, who directs all of the children’s literature, literacy, and reading programs, says the bank spent about another C$1 million in marketing leverage dollars, promoting projects with ads on the CBC, in newspapers, and with in-store advertising in retailers such as Walmart.

The numbers are impressive, but writer Andrea Spalding, one of 35 authors who fanned out to schools, libraries, and community centers across Canada during the 2012 TD Canadian Children’s Book Week last May, came back with a story that makes the value of the money a bit clearer.

Spalding traveled to Tulita in the Northwest Territories; in a post-tour report for CCBC, she wrote about meeting a 10-year old boy who, she was told, was a star reader in the school. He was in the front row for every one of her readings and bought all four books in her fantasy quartet. That’s a nice experience for any author in any town, but it means more in Canada’s north, where aboriginal communities struggle with poverty, high dropout rates, and epidemic suicide. In such remote locations, it’s rare for children to have an opportunity to meet a working author. The boy’s grandmother told Spalding, as she gave her grandson money to buy the fourth book, that she couldn’t read or write herself, but that she has encouraged her daughter and grandson and is proud of them. The hope is that author tours will encourage all children to read and that some of those star readers may become leaders in their communities.

The Canadian Children’s Book Centre, which runs the program with help from the federal government, has gathered a number of stories like this from the authors it helps tour the country – but how did the bank get involved with this project, and the various other literacy initiatives it sponsors?

Convery says about a dozen years ago, TD’s then-CEO, Charles Ballie – whose wife, Marilyn, is a children’s author – introduced the bank to the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, and the bank came on board as the sponsor of the center’s book week author tour. CCBC then asked TD to consider giving a book to all grade one students across the country each year, which amounts to more than 500,000 books annually; the 2012 title was I’ve Lost My Cat (J’ai perdu mon chat) by Phillipe Béha (Éditions Imagine). TD also sponsors the annual Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards, including the C$30,000 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for the most distinguished book of the year.

The bank works with other literacy organizations, such as Frontier College and First Book Canada, and is launching a Web site on January 29 (www.tdreads.com) that will act as a literacy resource hub for parents, teachers, and librarians. Then there’s the TD Summer Reading Club, which, Convery estimates, reaches about 625,000 kids every summer. “We got involved with the Toronto Public Library,” he explains. “Then it expanded to Ontario libraries, and now we do a national reading club program.” The themed summer reading initiative for children pre-school to age 13, which TD Bank funds, is designed by a Toronto librarian and then dispersed by Library and Archives Canada to libraries across the country. This year’s theme will be “Go,” an Amazing Race-style travel theme. “We recommend books based on the theme,” says Convery. “There will be games and activities. And while we provide the core hard-copy material, each library will supplement those things with their own innovative and creative activities. We give a prize to the library that gets the most creative every year.”

Paying Dividends

What’s behind the bank’s generosity? Reading plays an incredibly important role in developing and inspiring young minds,” says Frank McKenna, the bank’s deputy chair, a former Canadian ambassador to the U.S., and the public face of TD’s literacy causes. “Everyone should have the opportunity to discover the joys of a great story and a love for learning.” Convery explains in more pragmatic terms why the bank made literacy one of the major philanthropic focuses. “If you don’t enjoy reading, you won’t read and can’t be literate. If you are more literate you stay in school longer, you get post-secondary education, you get a better paying job, more discretionary spending income. It’s all economics-driven, so as a bank, it’s good to support initiatives that help to create a better economy.” And, he adds with tongue planted firmly in cheek, “If you have more discretionary income, there’s obviously more money to invest with the bank.”

Even if there is that element of self-interest in the bank’s philanthropy, the CCBC is very grateful. “TD’s support has made an extremely big difference in what we can offer Canadian children,” says executive director Charlotte Teeple. “All of the programs of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre are designed to help instill in Canadian children a love of reading and a passion for books. We believe that being an excellent reader is fundamental to every aspect of life. TD Bank Group shares that vision. They are more than a sponsor: they are the Book Centre’s partner in our program delivery.”

And in these days when praise for banks has been scarce, this kind of a long-term investment looks like money well spent.