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Founder Vs. CEO Vs. Visionary

By Mark Hrywna - August 1, 2014

In its first full year of existence in 2009, Pencils of Promise (PoP) raised less than $85,000. In 2012, the New York City-based nonprofit reported revenue of more than $5 million and 2014 should be a banner year as Founder and CEO Adam Braun travels the country promoting his new book and bringing more exposure to the charity.

By year’s end, Braun likely will no longer be the CEO. He’s not leaving the organization but he and the board hope to find a candidate to take the administrative reigns. He’ll remain on the board and be the external face of the organization.

It’s clear to Braun that Pencils has reached a point where his role as founder/CEO has become “two pretty distinctive roles.” Being founder and adding a distinctive CEO can add a lot more value, he said. “We have an exceptional opportunity to bring on a world-class CEO,” Braun said.

“With my current role, I’m spending a lot of time external facing, speaking publicly, meeting with donors,” Braun said, while the organization’s staff needs a day-to-day leader. “You see this happening all the time with great companies led by entrepreneurs, it gets to a place in maturity, if you understand the humility that you can’t be all things to all people,” he said.

After graduating Brown University in 2006, Braun went to work for Bain & Co. for several years. As PoP’s narrative goes, while traveling through India, Braun met a young boy begging in the streets and asked him what he wanted most in the world and the answer was simply, a pencil. After backpacking through dozens of countries, Braun eventually left Bain to start Pencils of Promise with a $25 deposit and a vision to build a school in a developing nation.

From that original $25 deposit, Pencils of Promise has experienced tremendous growth, especially in the last three years. Total revenue jumped from less than $100,000 to $1.4 million in 2010 with support of pop star Justin Bieber, who’s managed by Braun’s brother, Scott “Scooter” Braun. Revenue has continued to soar for Pencils, eclipsing $2.1 million in 2011 and $5 million in 2012, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form 990.

“When I look at why Pencils of Promise was founded, I genuinely believe that in my lifetime, we will see a point when every single child born on Earth will have access to quality education,” Braun said. “I hope now is the top of our S-curve,” he said, and with more money comes the ability to attract more talent as well as more efficiency by scaling, and ultimately helping more children.

New York City-based recruiting firm On-Ramps posted a job description for a new CEO the same day that Braun’s book, “The Promise of a Pencil,” was released. Proceeds from the book will benefit the charity.

“A fair amount of people and former employees were asking, ‘Are you leaving?’ The one thing that’s important for me to clarify is, I’m not leaving, I love our work, I’m more invigorated and inspired than ever,” Braun said.

The board made the decision in the fourth quarter of 2013 to find a new CEO and communicated internally during the first quarter of this year. “This has been a collective decision throughout,” said Braun, emphasizing that he will continue as founder and board member, side by side with a new CEO. “I don’t expect my commitment to diminish, it’s just going to transition,” he said.

“Ultimately, it will be the success of that process, and my relationship with them,” he said. “It’s always been the vision of Pencils of Promise that the organization be sustainable beyond any one individual,” Braun said.

There were two major factors involved in the decision, according to board member Karen Harris. PoP had grown from a very small startup to a medium sized organization, going from 100 schools to approaching 200, and needed a lot of attention. “That was a very large job,” she said, and Braun was playing both roles of operations and fundraising, where most nonprofits have two people doing that. “There’s a natural point of separation at that level and it coincided nicely with the book coming out,” she said. The book tour is a “huge opportunity for Pencils to reach young people, who’ve always been a core mission of ours,” Harris said, adding that the external role is a natural one for Braun.

Board member Hope Taitz credits Braun with realizing that he doesn’t necessarily have the CEO skills to take the organization to the next level, and he can’t be all things to all people. It’s a characteristic that’s very rare for a 30-year-old, she said, comparing the move to find a new CEO to when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg to be its chief operating officer.

The transition will bring a different challenge for Braun: “It’s even more a leap of faith; he’s going to stay intimately involved in the organization but someone else will do the execution,” Harris said.

The board went through a strategic process initiated by Braun, “to optimize this opportunity,” Taitz said. “It was a natural discussion on the back of a big increase in that kind of activity,” she said, with Braun’s extensive schedule of speaking engagements.

“It’s not where I’m best suited anymore to add the most amount of value,” Braun said of the role of CEO, managing budgets and internal staff.

Successful organizations use their people’s best skills and Braun is “incredibly powerful at engaging tomorrow’s leaders,” Taitz said. “That’s what’s most important, his unique talent is connecting in a very real and meaningful way with people,” she said.

“We’re taking advantage of that talent. It’s unique. What’s so powerful is it’s real. It’s a personal passion that’s put all his energy behind it and I think that really comes through,” Harris said.

“We need to recognize that Adam is doing so much for the organization on the road that it’s not fair not to have an operating person there day to day,” Taitz said. While Braun is on the book tour, a COO and CFO run the organization day to day, along with a director of international programs.

Harris hopes to have a new chief executive in place within this year while Taitz did not put a timeline on the CEO search, only to find the best candidate. Braun expects a new executive could be in place within three to six months.

“A great nonprofit actually puts itself out of business,” Taitz said. “It solves the problem in your mission statement, it’s not a business to just run forever. We want to solve and move the needle,” she said. NPT

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