The Power of One
The Power of Oneback

After he retired, Burt Freeman set up a nonprofit program that he envisioned as a personal project in which he’d do all the work, “Something to keep me out of the pool halls.”

In this last school year, the 11-year-old  program gave 4,400 children the opportunity to choose and own books � in most cases, for the first time in their lives. Freeman hasn’t counted how many children have been served overall.

His venture, My Own Book, is notable for two things: Recognizing that bigger may not be better, and seeing what’s there instead of what you want to be there.

My Own Book has more than 60 volunteers and a steering committee of three retirees, also volunteers. It is funded by Freeman’s family foundation as well as other foundations and individual donations. All money goes to program. It has no paid staff and no fundraising expenses. It is run entirely by volunteers.

The volunteers visit third-grade classrooms in all five boroughs of New York City, classrooms in schools that have at least 90 percent participation in the federal food program and no nearby bookstore. They discuss books, take the children to the nearest Barnes & Noble bookstore where each gets $50 (and a deep discount from BN) to buy their own books. The volunteers come back another day to discuss those books with the students.

Bigger may not be better

This school year, Freeman predicts the program will reach it’s goal of 5,000 children in 50 schools.

And that, he says, is enough. Not because the need’s been satisfied but because he’s reached the limit of his organization’s capacity. Expanding the program could risk it’s integrity and effectiveness. Right now, the program has no expenses: All staff and management are volunteers. Other than Freeman’s own occasional discussions with foundations, there’s no fundraising. And volunteers are trained by other volunteers, including Freeman himself. The money goes to buying books.

The emphasis in the nonprofit world these days is on scaling, getting bigger or replicating. But Freeman has a different view. “I’m not comfortable doing more,” he says. ” I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew.”

The only way to expand, he says, is if another organization took over My Own Book completely, providing management, volunteer training, and all the paperwork, fundraising and staff that a larger project would entail.

He’d stay on as a volunteer because that’s what he likes most: sitting on the floor with the children, talking about books, which he does with third graders in seven of the schools served by My Own Book.

Seeing What’s There

In 1999, Freeman planned to start a computer-literacy program in East Harlem. To that end, he visited the East Harlem Tutorial Program, where he chatted with some of the students. He asked them about books they liked and realized that they didn’t have books at home. The nearest bookstore with a children’s section was more than 30 blocks away and books cost more than most families could afford.

Computer literacy was put aside in favor of teaching a love of reading and giving children their own books.

Another project began the same way. As he worked out in his gym, thinking about this and that, he noticed that the children in the summer camp outside his window were all white. That didn’t seem right to him. Now his foundation provides scholarships to that summer camp for 125 children of color. 

“Foundation people have to keep their eyes open, they have to be receptive and perceptive to see needs that exist all around them,” Freeman advises. 

Not just foundation people. Everyone.

As the saying goes, “I thought someone ought to do something about it; then I realized that I am someone.

What unmet needs do you see in your community? Should successful nonprofits always try to scale? Has your agency changed its focus to better meet community needs?