An Interview With Earl Martin Phalen, CEO, Reach Out and Read
When a doctor says, “Take two of these and call me in the morning,” most patients would be surprised to be handed books. But Reach Out and Read finds that giving books to children and advising their parents on the educational benefits of reading aloud turns out to be good medicine.
Literacy rates greatly improve among children aged 6 months to 5 years who are aided by this Somerville, Mass.-based charity, ROR CEO Earl Martin Phalen says.
Since its small start 21 years ago at Boston Medical Center, ROR has grown to 4,654 sites in 50 states in 2010. Now, with 42 employees and a more than $13 million annual operating budget, the nonprofit partners nationwide with “doctors, nurse practitioners and other medical professionals [to] incorporate Reach Out and Read’s evidence-based model into regular pediatric checkups, by advising parents about the importance of reading aloud and giving developmentally appropriate books to children.”
An important page in ROR's operating manual is fundraising. About 44 percent of the operating budget comes from contributed income, which five employees are tasked with generating.
Phalen says ROR places “special emphasis” on creating this learning environment for children who are growing up in poverty.
FundRaising Success: Please tell us a little about the organization's history.
Earl Martin Phalen: Since its inception in 1989 at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center), Reach Out and Read has revolutionized the field of pediatric care. Using a three-part literacy promotion model developed by pediatricians and educators, Reach Out and Read has grown exponentially, blossoming from 34 programs in nine states in 1994 to our current 4,654 sites across all 50 states in 2011. Reach Out and Read now serves 3.9 million children (more than one-third of American children living in poverty) and distributes 6.4 million books annually.
It is not just Reach Out and Read’s rapid growth and scalability, however, that define the program’s history. The Reach Out and Read Program has grown to include not only many more sites, but also a diverse population served. In 2007, Reach Out and Read launched Leyendo Juntos (Reading Together), an initiative intended to support Spanish-speaking families and providers, and the American Indian/Alaskan Native Initiative to serve Native Americans nationwide. In 2009, Reach Out and Read in the Military expanded to a total of 35 U.S. military bases, serving more than 25 percent of children of military families.
Additionally, a collection of 14 research studies provide an evidence base for our model and accountability for the program. In 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics officially endorsed Reach Out and Read’s proven model of early literacy promotion.
FS: How do you fund your mission?
EP: A number of different sources fund Reach Out and Read. Fifty percent of our operating revenue comes from federal and state grants, 25 percent comes from generous, in-kind book sponsors such as Scholastic Inc., and 15 percent comes from philanthropic foundations and corporations. The remaining funds are sourced from individual contributions, events and fiscal sponsorship.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
EP: As with many nonprofit organizations, there is always the challenge of funding organizations focusing on causes other than our own. Specific to Reach Out and Read, however, is the reality that too many people think investing in children and education means to invest only in children currently in school. Such an assumption could not be more false.
The most significant period for early childhood development occurs from birth to age 5, when a child’s brain grows more rapidly than at any other life stage. Waiting until kindergarten is far too late; children need to enter school with the skills needed to learn to read and succeed. Early language skills, based primarily on language exposure that results from parents and other adults talking to young children, are the foundation for reading ability. Reach Out and Read works hard to convince funders that an investment in early literacy and education prevents problems that surface in grades K-12 and beyond.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
EP: [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg recently agreed to donate $100 million to improve Newark, N.J., schools, and this gift will indeed make a significant difference in Newark’s school district and many of New Jersey’s children. What Reach Out and Read needs is this type of large-scale investment. With $100 million, Reach Out and Read could serve 10 million children and ensure that they arrive at school on grade level prepared to excel, obliterating the need for many of the remedial programs that exist in schools today. What we need is an investor who wants to change the future of education in the United States.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
EP: A diverse portfolio is the core of Reach Out and Read’s fundraising philosophy. Our development team aggressively pursues large corporations, foundations and individuals dedicated to improving children’s health and education.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with social media and social networking?
EP: It is crucial for nonprofit organizations to recognize their wide base of support as a critical component of a healthy organization. Reach Out and Read engages in a variety of social-media and social-networking platforms to grow our support base. Using social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, Reach Out and Read searches for potential partners and interacts with current supporters by asking questions, highlighting news, and starting up discussions about who we are and what we do.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
EP: Reach Out and Read officially launched a three-year project to strengthen and expand our programming for children and families in Michigan, Mississippi and New Mexico. This initiative, which is funded by a $1.5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, will enable Reach Out and Read to serve an additional 30,000 children and families.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s investment in Reach Out and Read, and the children our program serves, will significantly impact the education systems in these three states. Currently, Michigan, Mississippi and New Mexico rank 34th, 48th and 49th in the country in fourth-grade reading rates, with more than 70 percent of children in each state failing to read proficiently. The grant from W.K. Kellogg Foundation serves as a special initiative that will use Reach Out and Read’s research-proven model to target children in these states and equip them with the tools and skills they’ll need to enter school ready to read and succeed.
FS: Have you had any major difficulties or setbacks you've faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
EP: The low cost of the program makes Reach Out and Read unique: We need only $50 to fund a single child in the five-year program. As a result, it is a challenge to get donors to understand that we still need large grants to fund our operating expenses and other program costs to ensure the high quality and impact of our program across each of our 4,654 sites. More often than not, we undersell ourselves and fail to capitalize on our true capabilities to maximize the program’s scope.
In terms of redirecting our fundraising efforts, I would like to see Reach Out and Read work to build infrastructure. Historically, the bulk of our fundraising efforts have been primarily driven toward money to buy books, and along the way we never built the infrastructure necessary to sustain the program’s growth. Now, because we have achieved scale, we can place a greater emphasis on building support within the program and creating much more sustainable growth in the future.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
EP: I would urge organizations similar to Reach Out and Read to continue traditional fundraising methods, such as cultivating individual donor bases and expanding corporate and foundation grants, but to simultaneously look for a scalable, sustainable business model. Look at how comparable organizations operate, and identify how you can create the business model that works for your organization. Think boldly. Fundraise for where you want to be in the future rather than where you currently stand. In light of the economy, think optimistically; people are still winning and giving big.