First Book, the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that provides books and other resources to classrooms and programs serving children in need, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. To mark this milestone—and ensure future ones—the organization has launched a bold scaling plan seeking $12 million–$15 million in investment funding that will enable it to quadruple in size in the next five to seven years.
Through its work, First Book has established a network of more than 525,000 educators exclusively serving kids in need, with thousands of new members signing up each month. It serves more than five million children annually and has distributed more than 200 million books and resources. With the new investment it seeks, First Book aims to amass more than two million educators in its network and reach more than 60 million children living in poverty.
Kyle Zimmer, president, CEO, and cofounder of First Book, explains the spark behind undertaking such an ambitious objective. “At our 30th anniversary, we’re long past our awkward adolescence,” she says. “And what we recognize is, we’re a social enterprise. That’s how we’re designed. That’s who we are.”
In that capacity, Zimmer says that she and her team have become experienced business planners. “As we enter new categories of our efforts, we write business plans under each one of those, and then we watch for years, and we make sure that the pilots work out and that they’re of value to our network,” she says. “We really take the time to make sure that the wheels are firmly on the wagon, and then we recognize that it’s time to push it out onto the launch pad and move into greater scale.”
Zimmer notes that this has been the approach to developing the organization’s core components: the First Book Educator Network, First Book Marketplace (providing the network with access to affordable new books and resources), First Book Research and Insights (which aggregates and amplifies the voices of the educators in the network via surveys), and the First Book Accelerator (which converts research and recognized best practices into tools and up-to-date resources for educators). “Now we’re realizing it’s time that, collectively, the comprehensive programs of the organization are scaled up not to just reach the 60% of Title I– and Title I–eligible schools that we currently serve, but to reach 100% of those schools,” Zimmer says. “As proud as we are of what we’ve built, we are awake every night understanding that there are millions of kids waiting for us and millions of teachers waiting for us. We really want to go from our 60% to 100% of the schools that need us, and we’re ready for it.”
Julie Fortenbery, executive v-p finance and accounting, confirms that assessment. “A goal of two million educators reached is actually reasonable and required for us to fulfill our mission across all of the United States,” she says. “We can continue to grow at 1,000 educators per week, but really, we think it’s much more urgent than that. We are looking to scale the organization much more rapidly, so that we can accelerate the time frame to get to those two million educators.”
First Book embarked on phase one of the new scaling plan in August 2021, in conjunction with the beginning of the school year. “We secured working capital [via a line of credit with the organization’s banking partner] to purchase a $1.5 million inventory of children’s books” for the First Book Marketplace, Fortenbery says, pointing out that more than half of the books “focus on content that reflects all of the different experiences of the children that we serve.”
This major purchase of diverse children’s books also falls in line with the findings of a summer 2021 nationwide survey of First Book’s educator network about its members’ spending priorities for federal American Rescue Plan funding allocated for support during the pandemic. The top funding priority for surveyed educators, expressed by 99% of respondents, is investing in books for their students in their own classrooms or programs.
The second phase of First Book’s scaling plan focuses on growing the educator network. According to Fortenbery, significant funding will center on “outreach to new potential members, marketing efforts, public awareness campaigns, and also really engaging the members we already have in our network to remind them that we’re a powerful resource for them to get content for the children that they serve.” This strategy is key “because we know that there’s a direct correlation between the growth of the network and the access to the resources on our network,” she says. “They go up together.”
The nuts and bolts of securing funding for First Book’s growth will include a range of familiar as well as more novel asks. “We’re going to be working with our current corporate partners to see who’s able to step up and help us leverage to this next level,” Zimmer says. “We’re also going to be, and have been, reaching out to foundations in a new way, because this is a different activity than our ongoing programmatic work. And we’re reaching out to high-net-worth individuals and to the public.” She stresses that a full-spectrum approach is more necessary than ever. “We aren’t going to be happy until we have 100% engagement by Title I– and Title I–eligible schools—that’s the main benchmark for us for success. We’ve always been a group that’s happy with our progress but unsatisfied, bluntly, because we’re not big enough to solve the problem yet,” she says. “We’ve been building the strategies, and testing and growing them over 30 years. And now it’s really time to crack the back of this issue nationwide. We’re positioned to do it. We know how to sign people up and how to serve them. We know how to run the warehousing and how to price the beautiful books to get them out. We know every component part, and now it’s time to reach every school.”
First Book’s historical experience was the main driver for arriving at the goals and funding needs for this project, according to Fortenbery. “We feel these are very conservative, reasonable, and realistic projections based on the fact that we understand the market and we’ve been doing this for a number of years,” she says. “We’re not doing anything new. We’re just doing it at a larger scale, and at a faster clip.” Fortenbery notes that required internal expenses “from marketing to adding staff resources to upgrading our systems so that we can accommodate those things are all built into the projections.” Most importantly, though, she points to “the ability to generate self-sufficiency on the First Book Marketplace through these funds increases over time”—defining self-sufficiency as meaning that “the mission margin that we collect on our Marketplace sales can go back into fund other parts of the organization.” She adds: “This scaling plan, in addition to reaching the two million educators and all Title I schools, actually makes First Book 90% self-sufficient as an organization [up from 40% self-sufficient today], which extends First Book’s legacy into the future.”
Zimmer and her First Book colleagues are enthusiastic about the first steps they’ve taken on this journey to expansion and are determined to achieve their goals. “What we’re building is the platform, so that every kid in need has access to books through their schools, through their preschools, and after-school programs serving them,” Zimmer says. “We need 360-degree surround sound for those kids, promoting reading and promoting literacy skills. This is us sounding the alarm and saying, ‘We are leaving no one out.’ We’re pulling together everybody in the lives of kids in need, with the fundamental focus on access to books, and also recognizing that we can elevate the voice of this critical community for the publishing world as well as for policymakers and others.”