The following story ran in the Fall 2003 issue of the Publishers Association of the South newsletter.
Recently, after reconciling our 2002 books, I wrote a check to the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) equaling one percent of last year's pre-tax profits.
The contribution wasn't much -- maybe the equivalent of buying a new filing cabinet or a month's worth of long distance. But donating one 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.
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 -- persons 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-sciency 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.
Walkabout Press began in 2000 with this mission: To produce and to 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 also to make money and to give some away.
Thanks to the steady sales success of Play Hard Rest Easy: New England - the first in a series of adventure travel guidebooks - and to the runaway success of Dana Rader's golf instructional book, Rock Solid Golf, we made money last year. It was a great feeling to share some of that success.
PAS Executive Director Pat Sabiston asked me to write this piece by sharing the "five W's" - the who, what, where, when, and why - of our effort. The assignment was easy until I got to "why" because the decision to give money away was made for emotional rather than business reasons. In essence, it just "felt" and "feels" right.
Fortunately, we're learning our donations also make good business sense. Here, then, are the emotional and practical considerations behind our mission.
The Reads and the Read Nots
Learning to read is an activity I'm surrounded by every day. Nearly five years ago, my son McLean was born, and three years later, his brother Elliott arrived. Almost without exception, my wife and I have read to both boys every night from the age of six months or so. 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 in 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.
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 does come 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 -- give me a Harry Potter title and I'll gladly take down a few trees in pursuit of the profits. To me, thinking globally and acting locally has more to do with 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 in doing something about children who are not read to on a daily basis?
In part, it was the giddy thoughts that accompanied starting my own business: "I can come to work in a pink tu-tu, if I want." And: "Why can't I make a difference by donating money to build literacy?"
Without too much financial (versus emotional) deliberation, the decision was made. I got - and sometimes get - blank stares when I share our one-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 our story may encourage other companies to do the same. 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. Last summer, when Rock Solid Golf was nearing final production, I was standing in line at Starbucks 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 our pledge on all our books.)
Philanthropy sets higher goals. Because we give one percent of our profits away, we also raise our sales goals, which are expressed as, "This year, we want to give $X amount away." As Jack Welch showed at GE, it's possible to take aggressive sales goals, stretch them 10%, 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 to 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 for no pay. But since we've begun sharing our pledge more openly, we have received between five and ten resumes this summer from interns willing to work just for the experience and for being part of a greater good.
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 to close, or to hold at bay, the chasm between the have's and the have not's; that somehow, our effort, may be helping maintain the social structure that supports our free-market economy.
See? Time to stop thinking.
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Malcolm Campbell is president of Charlotte-based Walkabout Press, www.walkaboutpress.com, whose books are distributed to the book trade through John F. Blair, Publisher. None of Walkabout Press' books is tested on animals. Look for Play Hard Rest Easy: Carolinas & Georgia, Spring 2004.