Investing to Push Pencils, Embrace Purpose

Investing in positive change is one of the best investments of all.

Jul 3, 2014 at 11:14AM

Hello, America. The fact that you are reading this says your day is likely much, much different than it would be in Guatemala.

Can you imagine if your commute involved trekking to work on foot, with a hoe on your shoulder or a machete in your hand? Or if daily labor meant heavy-duty farming on nearly vertical surfaces? What if we all regularly saw heavily armed individuals guarding things we take for granted as "safe," like gas stations and trucks' cargo? "Public transportation" has a whole new meaning when you're crammed shoulder to shoulder with many other people into unsafe vehicles speeding fast on skinny, potholed roads.

Let's think about working as hard, or exponentially harder, than we do now -- but receiving only $2 per day. Not only that, but lacking electricity, flushing toilets, and clean water despite our labors. Some of us "rough it" by chopping wood to cook on an open fire when we temporarily "get back to nature"; imagine doing that every single day because it's the only option.

In America, most of our education worries involve whether we can afford to shell out tens of thousands of dollars on private schools and college. Still, we generally don't need to pull our kids out of school to help bring in a few more dollars a day, or to take care of their siblings. Even more, most of us aren't faced with a life in which we have absolutely no schools in our remote communities.

In other words, we don't live in Guatemala, a country that lacks many of the basic necessities Americans take for granted. However, we can invest in better futures for others across the globe. I recently saw firsthand the power of a pencil -- and the power of working together to invest in a brighter future.

Investing for positive impact, not charity
Long-term investors reap many rewards for our efforts, compounding our returns over time. However, as we build our wealth, we can help improve economic lots even beyond our own. Some organizations take each dollar and really make it matter to combat some of the world's greatest ills, such as lack of basic education.

Pencils of Promise is one such organization. It prides itself on being different: it's a for-purpose organization that works diligently to build schools for communities looking for a leg up, not a handout. I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that saw Pencils of Promise's work in several Guatemalan communities.


Freshly constructed Pencils of Promise school funded by The Motley Fool's 2013 Foolanthropy campaign, in Patzite Costa. Photo: Alyce Lomax.

PoP founder Adam Braun has melded for-profit and nonprofit ideals into "for-purpose" organizations that pack serious effectiveness. His book, The Promise of a Pencil, outlines the history of the organization. One child in India told him that if he could have anything, he'd ask for a pencil -- a perfect symbol of the tools and resources needed for learning.

Braun's background in the financial industry prepared him to think in terms of "maximizing the return on investment from every dollar we receive and by rigorously measuring our impact." Here's more on his strategy, in his own words.

Organizations such as Pencils of Promise allow us to use our prosperity -- including our traditional investment returns -- to invest in economic prosperity that ultimately stretches to all economies.

Progress, not charity
Pencils of Promise was the beneficiary of The Motley Fool's highly successful Foolanthropy campaign last winter. A contingent of Motley Fool members and employees traveled to Guatemala several weeks ago to see PoP's work at ground level, and exactly who we are trying to help.


Schoolchildren at a Pencils of Promise-funded school in Patzite Centro, shown with PoP Guatemalan director Jesse Schauben, at left. Photo: Alyce Lomax.

Our group was awed by the quality of the new schools the campaign is funding, the Pencils of Promise team's intrepid dedication, and, most of all, the passion and enthusiasm of the Guatemalan staff, schoolchildren, and communities that the organization is working with.

These people are embracing progress under the toughest of circumstances, not least of which is the boundary formed by the lack of infrastructure in the country. The school sites we visited in ultra-remote communities, hardly reachable unless you have heavy-duty trucks to withstand what we would never call "roads," show that this organization isn't playing around and taking the cushy path of least resistance.


The perilous path to Patzite Costa and Patzite Centro school sites. Photo: Brian Withers.

Pencils of Promise isn't a charity, it's a partnership for positive purpose. The local communities it works with must "buy in" with a 10% to 20% investment of their own, illustrating their deep commitment to education. Their investments can include local labor, materials, and staff. Our group mingled with a community, including laborers, and got a dose of hard work by helping to mix, lug, and pour cement down a steep hill.


Helping cement the foundations at construction site in San Bartolo Mixpilla. Photo: Tamsin Green.

The organization is also offering a solution where many nonprofit organizations have failed terribly. Pencils of Promise directs 100% of online donations directly into the schools, and is fully transparent about where the funds go. This is not one of the tragic stories about donations that end up going more into marketing or overhead than to the people they are meant to help. In addition, the organization tracks actual results at its schools, and those results have been impressive.

Every school PoP has completed is fully operational and teaching kids daily. PoP has great data on its side. Its scholarship students go on to secondary school two times more than national averages. PoP students have three times higher scores on language and literacy tests than their counterparts.


The WASH program, which teaches hygiene lessons to reduce illness that can interrupt education. Photo: Anna Sergeant.

Investing in a positive future for all
Here at The Motley Fool, we are all about long-term investing. It comes in many forms, though. Directing money into organizations such as Pencils of Promise allows us to dedicate some of our investing gains and overall prosperity toward a holistic vision of how we can bolster economic well-being across the world.

Someday, these children may use their talents to build great businesses that touch their own communities, and that can radiate out into economies worldwide. They will be our suppliers, or perhaps form companies that will one day be our most popular international investments. Simply helping emerging markets develop more quickly, sending more individuals on a path to prosperity, gives us exponentially more trading partners and consumers.

All young people have the potential to go on to invent amazing solutions to ease our daily lives or even solve the biggest global problems; who knows, one of these kids could cure cancer.

The sky's the limit with every child, and it all starts with access to great education. After doing well by investing in stocks, we can also remember investing in the change we want to see. Our group could see the seeds of such change in Pencils of Promise's work in Guatemala. To learn more about Pencils of Promise or to donate to their cause, click here.

Check back at for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

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