Nothing Is More Powerful Than Purpose,
Says PoP Founder Adam Braun

By Nicole Millman-Falk, CAE

One thing you immediately notice about Adam Braun, founder of Pencils of Promise (PoP) and keynoter at digitialNow's 2014 Conference in Nashville, is how this 30-year-old held the rapt attention of a room full of…well…way-more-than-30-year-olds. Braun represents a generational shift in nonprofit ideology. In fact, he hates the term 'non-profit.' "We are the only space where we begin our introductions with a negative," he said during a separate sit-down interview. "Instead, we should think of ourselves as 'for-purpose.'"

How do you go about changing the long-established lexicon of non-profit to for-purpose? "You get early adopters to be your torchbearers," said Braun. "If 10 people leave digitalNow and start using the phrase, and in a year, four are still using it, I've made inroads," he said. "I get emails from people who have started organizations after hearing me speak. When I visit their websites, I notice that a number are already describing their organizations as for purpose, so change is already happening."

Change your words to change your worth is one of the many mantras, or guiding principles, that helped transform PoP, which Braun started in 2008 with a BHAG (big audacious hairy goal), a pocketful of pencils, a $25 deposit to open a bank account, and a passion to change the world, into what has since been identified as one of the worlds' most impactful new nonprofits by such organizations as the World Economic Forum and the Clinton Global Initiative.

<Know that You have a purposeHelp Build A School
Hugh Lee, President, and Don Dea, Co-Founder, of Fusion Productions and creators of digitalNow, committed to raising funds to build a PoP school. Funding from Fusion Productions, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, host of the 14th Annual digitalNow Conference, and many of the attendees, have started the fundraising process. Contributions can be made through:

"My story starts with my family," he said. Raised with the Jewish value of tzedukah (literally translated as righteous behavior, though often referred to as charity), giving of one's time and money was a way of life for him growing up. "We were also raised to believe that we had a purpose," he explained. "Nothing is more powerful than purpose, whether as an individual or as an organization." Knowing that you have a purpose is Braun's third mantra.

In developing PoP, Braun wanted to integrate purpose and profit. "I also wanted to prove that there was a new way to launch and sustain an organization, building it through digital and social media," he explained. The PoP website, for example, was launched more than a year after the organization was in full swing, but was built on a digital platform that allowed others to tell their stories.

When conveying your organization's purpose, people may not remember all your words, but they will remember how you make them feel. Storytelling is a powerful tool. This sometimes means that as the leader you must step back and let others tell your story for you (mantra number 28: Listen to your echoes.) Writes Braun in his book The Promise of a Pencil—How an ordinary person can create extraordinary change: "If an idea grows, it expands for beyond the confines of any one person's control. By limiting it to a single story told by a single voice, we strip it of its true potential. The role of the founder should eventually be to listen to the echoes of his or her initial words, and then encourage and amplify the most genuine of those you hear. The more I embraced this as my true role, the more I became inspired by the journeys of the individuals, families, and companies in our PoP community."

Adam BraunAdam Braun,
founder of Pencils of Promise (PoP)

Ultimately, non-profit (or for-purpose) leaders must decide if they want to build a life of success or significance. What is the footprint—the legacy—that we want to leave behind? Writes Braun: "Start by changing the subjects of your daily conversation from the life you are living to the life you aspire to create. By speaking the language of the person you seek to become, you will soon find yourself immersed in the conversations that make you most come alive. You'll sense the energy you emit attracting similar energy from others. Your conversations will lead to opportunities, which will become actions, which will become footprints for good."

One thing this young for-purpose entrepreneur realizes is that change, regardless of the size of the organization, is constant. "The organization we have today is not the one that will be successful in the future." So he's always on the lookout for that next BHAG. What's yours?

Nicole Millman-Falk, CAE, is President of Millman-Falk Communications, LLC, providing strategic communication services for trade associations, professional societies, and donor-based organizations, including turnkey newsletters and magazines. She is Managing Editor of InView and is the Chair of NYSAE's 2014-15 Awards Committee. She can be reached at 201-652-1687, through her website at, or @nmillmanfalk.