Michael Dougherty: CEO of Pencils of Promise

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Michael has 25+ years of experience in the education space, including stints at Bain & Co. and in Washington DC helping states keep pace with international best practices of student achievement. Working in developing nations with PoP, he sees even greater impact for students and higher ROI for supporters. Michael has degrees from Colgate and Stanford, is an ultra marathoner, Springsteen fanatic & adventure motorcyclist.

How did you get into the Philanthropy industry?

I spent 30 years of my career in the for-profit education sector, helping teachers succeed and students learn to read and write. A few years back, however, I had a realization that the days of my career were numbered. It caused me to reflect on the lasting impact I was making in the world. That’s why when my wife Cindy and I decided to have a joint mid-life crisis, which we’re calling our “crisis for good.” Instead of buying a fancy car or taking extra vacations, we decided to dedicate the final decades of our careers towards bringing education to those who need it most. It’s a decision that we get to share daily; every morning Cindy wakes up and heads to the South Bronx to teach middle school English, and I make my way down to the PoP office to scale innovative literacy programs in the developing world.

Tell us about Pencils of Promise. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?

At PoP we’re driven by the fundamental belief that where you start in life shouldn’t dictate where you finish. It’s a sentiment on display in our office and drives the work that we do everyday. There are 250 million children around the world who can’t read and write. That number is huge! But we have the tools to fix this problem, and our teams in NYC and in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos are working every day to do so. My vision for the future of education aligns with PoP’s mission: that all children, no matter where they are born or what resources they have, receive access to a quality education. We do have a long way to go, but education is one of the most important investments a country can make in it’s people. If all students in the developing world left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. It truly takes a collaborative effort from a lot of people and organizations working on the shared goals of education for all in order to achieve this vision.

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have contributed to PoP's success?

Storytelling and creativity are integral to our marketing strategy. Since the early days, something that has set us apart is that this team understands that in order to build a movement around our cause, our brand needs to be at our core. We have a stellar marketing team.

I think of them as our internal creative agency – scrappy and audacious. We approach marketing as if we’re a Fortune 100 brand; we don’t see why it would be any different. We’re able to execute big ideas because of authentic relationships that have been built with people who are equally as passionate about our mission. A successful corporate social good partnership should be mutually beneficial – we want the partnership to be long term versus transactional. We look for partners who see themselves both growing with PoP and who are interested in creating an ongoing narrative of sustainable impact.

A strong signal that the partnership could be beneficial to both brands is an awareness of all that PoP can offer from a marketing standpoint. Forbes named us one of the best nonprofits to reach Millennials, which is largely because we have over 1 million followers on our social media channels who make up an engaged and active audience -- one that truly cares about our work. When we ask our followers to come together for a PoP activation, they do.

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?

Our use of technology and our brand are unique to the nonprofit space. We’re truly tech-infused and our use of best-in-class technology ensures that we are able to be transparent and close the loop with our stakeholders. We gather data in the field on tablets, engage students with digital content and support teachers with tech-integrated curriculum. We also report the impact of these efforts back to our support community via Salesforce and Tableau.

Something unique to PoP is that we were also one of the first brands to use virtual reality for social good storytelling. We premiered a VR film at our 2015 Gala, which transported guests into a before/after school build in Toklokpo, Ghana. The film was also included in the launch of Facebook360 and now has now reached more than 8 million people. We’re going to continue to explore and capitalize on all the excitement around the VR space for social good. There are definitely opportunities for big brands to be involved in our next project with Felix & Paul Studios.

Life Motto?

My high school senior English teacher, Arthur Naething, ended every single class with the words: “Go Forth and Spread Beauty and Light”. I’ve tried to do so ever since.

Your greatest success as CEO of PoP? Most difficult moment - how did you overcome it?

My greatest success is PoP’s sustaining success: opening up a future of possibility to every child in our communities. There is nothing better than the moment when a new school is inaugurated and the children rush in, laughing, giggling and playing...surely with the thought in their heads “Is this really ours?”. That never gets old.

One key challenge I face every day is communication. We’re building a school a week, training and supporting teachers daily, somewhere around the globe in three countries with vast cultural differences. We have to communicate exceptionally well across teams to pull our work off efficiently and effectively.

Your advice to an aspiring philanthropist?

Be fearless, act boldly and remain passionate and true to your goal. Since joining PoP almost a year ago I’ve come to see that we’ve had such positive outcomes and success because our staff is tenacious, bold and tirelessly committed to bringing our mission to life.

Describe the ideal experience using PoP.

Change the world for children with literacy in 10 years. There’s an urgency to our work. Every year, another 18 million kids give up learning to read and write and will soon “become” illiterate. By utilizing best-in-class tech, dedicated monitoring and evaluation and radical transparency to work in harmony with our donors, we’re working to stop that cycle.

How do you motivate your employees?

Beer – no really, beer. When I was at Bain & Co in the early 1990s, the idea of having a beer at the office to chill out while working late hours was not an option. Today, it’s a staple of fun, high-engagement office cultures. It took me a while to understand that, but recently I bought a beer fridge, stocked it with craft brews and opened PoP Cafe! And, the staff is pretty much in charge of the Sonos music system; recently I learned about “Fetty Wap Fridays.”

What's next for PoP?

First things first, we need to find what moves the needle for a student to become proficient in literacy. We’re vetting hundreds of micro innovations (classroom practices, tools, methods). For every 25 we research, we might pilot a few and scale one (the lucky one that has data evidence of efficacy). Second, 250 million kids in our world cannot read or write. We can solve that with technology in the classroom and do it in a cost-effective, individualized learning way. Beyond that, where do I see PoP? Better. Bigger. Bolder. We’re already on this path. We’re just getting started and I hope we can scale our methods and classroom interventions to the point that other organizations, and even governments look to PoP as the literacy leader and adopt our approaches.