Ode Editors | Jan/Feb 2010 issue
As a volunteer tutor in a Washington D.C. soup kitchen in 1992, Kyle Zimmer was shocked to see that many of the kids who came in for homework and reading help did not own any books. She began to research the problem and soon found out that a major cause of illiteracy among low-income children is the simple absence of books in their lives. An attorney at the time, Zimmer says she found her life calling. She switched tracks and started First Book, an organization that provides new books to schools and non-profits serving children at risk for illiteracy.
“When you look at the rates of illiteracy in this country over the past decades, they have barely moved, especially for kids in need,” she says. “Kids are not going to read unless books in their environment.” She cites a study that showed in low-income neighborhoods there is only one age appropriate book for every 300 children. “This is a profound failure,” she says. “It’s a personal tragedy for those involved and our country gets robbed of all the brilliance that could be unleashed.”
Zimmer established the country’s first national book bank, a system which stockpiles unsold inventory from publishers who would otherwise not have the resources to donate individual books to the many thousands of small non-profits and low-income schools that need them. First Book collects and warehouses the donations and offers them for free or for a low shipping cost to these organizations. First Book has given away 65 million books.
Zimmer’s latest innovation is First Book Marketplace. She didn’t want her organization to be dependent on donations forever, and she saw a way leverage the buying power of small organizations to funnel more books to kids in need. Zimmer recognized that a huge but diffuse market exists for low-cost books among the 200,000 to 300,000 preschool and after-school programs in the country, plus the 1.3 million low-income school classrooms. Most of them have a small budget which they could spend on books if the cost was low enough. The Marketplace offers book publishers an opportunity to sell to these groups. Normally publishers have to guess how many books they might sell, and absorb the losses of unsold books. Instead, First Book commissions and purchases entire print runs of many new books and resells them for $2 each to its member organizations.
“If you limit your model to the number of kids you can reach by fundraising and giving away product for free, you’ll never reach all the kids who need you,” she say. “Instead we’re borrowing from the private sector model.”
Zimmer believes her model of market-based charity can solve illiteracy. First Book Marketplace currently has 23,000 organizations signed up and buying low-cost books, and the numbers keep growing. “Study after study shows that when books are consistently in the lives of kids, they become readers, and then every miraculous thing we know can happen from reading has a chance to happen,” Zimmer says. “We can fix this problem. This is not rocket science.”