Twenty-seven years ago, Tom Warth, a British expat and local book publisher, visited a small library in Jinja, Uganda. Its shelves were mostly empty. Students had little to read and what they had needed to be shared with several others. Warth had an idea: Let’s end the book famine in Africa. And let’s use best business practices to help make that happen.
That idea became the mission of St. Paul-based Books For Africa and has led to the shipment of more than 34 million books to 49 countries in Africa since Warth’s visit to Jinja. The book famine is not over, but we’ve made progress.
That simple mission became the guiding light of our nonprofit all these years. And while it is inspiring and durable, the mission alone is not sufficient. There are hundreds of nonprofits promoting worthy causes. But to survive and prosper in the 21st century, nonprofits have to adapt the best practices of both the nonprofit world and the business world and weld them together.
Nonprofits are important because they fill a role that neither governments nor corporations can. “Corporations almost invariably underinvest in public goods, because they can capture only a small fraction of the rewards,” the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki wrote recently. “Governments do better at providing public goods (defense, say, or education), but private agendas often derail the public, and governments are far less effective at tackling global problems.”
Nonprofits bring much to the table. They generally have a compelling mission like ending the book famine, curing cancer or ending hunger. They serve a social purpose and the greater good. They are generally service-oriented. They offer a compelling narrative about the impact of their work. Photos of smiling African children who finally got their own textbook are priceless.
But more and more nonprofits need to look to the business world for ideas about efficiency, results and metrics to measure results — using innovation, outsourcing and collaboration with other businesses and nonprofits to reduce the costs of operations.
BFA and other nonprofits take pride in the work they do and the standards by which they are judged.
For example, Charity Navigator, the country’s premier charity evaluator, gave BFA its top four-star rating for the fourth consecutive year, a rating only 8 percent of the charities rated received. The four-star rating was based on fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency. And Charity Navigator rated BFA No. 1 in its national “Humanitarian Relief Supplies” category.
Like businesses, nonprofits need to maintain a sharp focus on their mission and how they can reach their goals most efficiently. That includes maintaining a lean staff and operation, but also knowing what you do best and sticking to that.
In BFA’s case, we collect donated books and funds to ship them to schools and libraries in Africa. We work with partners in Africa who distribute the books. We hire out the trucking of books to our Atlanta warehouse and the actual transocean shipping to Africa. BFA doesn’t own trucks or shipping containers or run offices in Africa. We don’t have agents in Africa. And we don’t build the libraries. All those functions are outsourced. As a result, it costs 50 cents to ship one book to a student in Africa.
Another way to maintain focus and promote efficiency is to collaborate with other nonprofits and businesses and, in some cases, government agencies. Each party brings its own strengths to bear.
In BFA’s case, that means collaborating with the nonprofit World Reader to ship not only books but e-readers to African students. It means working with Hudson, Wis.-based Little Free Libraries to ship their unique libraries filled with books. It means working with Thomson Reuters to send law and human rights books to African law schools.
BFA also works closely with book companies that can provide specialized books to meet the demands of African students. For example, Follett (based in Chicago) has access to used high school textbooks while Better World Books (based in Indiana) provides college books and Merck (the pharmaceutical manufacturer and health care company) provides medical books. And Out of Print clothing sends a book to Africa for every shirt it sells.
And in many cases, the Peace Corps, U.S. embassies and USAID have worked with BFA to help provide books throughout Africa. These efforts are the ultimate “soft diplomacy,” promoting education and the rule of law as the basis for building democracy and stability. With all these collaborative efforts, the demand for books in Africa continues to grow. In fact, last month BFA had to double its warehouse space in Atlanta to meet that demand.
This month, Tom Warth returned to the library in Jinja, Uganda, where the idea for Books For Africa was hatched. Since his visit in 1988, more than 1.5 million books have been sent to Uganda, thousands to the Jinja library. Yet Warth, who will be celebrating his 80th birthday on a walk across Zanzibar and during his visit to Jinja, is still focused on his simple idea from three decades ago.