Lessons Learned: Fundraising with First Book

How BookBooster.org helped raise $50,000 for students in need

Guest post by A.T. McWilliams and Holman Gao, Founders of BookBooster.org

Students in Oakland pose with their new copies of “A Wrinkle in Time” before a class field trip to see the movie.

“We don’t have any books there.”

Before co-founding BookBooster.org  —  a fundraising project that provides new books for high-need schools in the Bay Area  —  I was a teacher in Brooklyn, NY. During my first days in the classroom, I spent one afternoon calming a crying first grader. She failed to complete her nightly reading requirement and now faced the consequence: removal from recess and reflection on her poor “choices.”

For the better part of an hour, the 6-year-old slumped into her desk chair and tearfully watched her classmates play on the rug. Arms folded and brow furrowed, she appeared more confused than inconsolable. As recess winded down, I crouched beside her 3-foot desk to ask why she didn’t complete her work.

“I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it. My mom said we don’t have anything at my house to read. We don’t have any books there.”

At the time, her trembling words were jarring. Throughout my life, books have never been in short supply. I struggled to imagine a home without a full bookshelf, let alone a single book. But as more months passed in Brownsville  —  one of the most under-resourced neighborhoods in Brooklyn  —  the more stories I heard like hers. That year I learned the painful truths of the book gap.

Only 34% of low-income students in the Bay Area meet literacy standards  —  compared to 75% of more affluent students.

Like Brooklyn, many parts of the United States suffer from the consequences of insufficient book supplies. When I moved to San Francisco, I was surprised to learn that only 34% of low-income students in the Bay Area meet literacy standards  —  compared to 75% of more affluent students. So when I left the classroom and started a new job in the Bay Area, I wanted to help close this gap and ensure all students had the books they needed to learn and grow. And soon after meeting Holman Gao, a fellow social entrepreneur, we decided to dedicate time outside of our core jobs to start a project that would help.

Since BookBooster started in 2016, hundreds of donors have helped raise nearly $50,000 for high-need schools across the Bay Area. When we were researching how to get books into the low-income schools, we came across First Book, a non-profit already fulfilling that mission. Two years later, we couldn’t imagine a more perfect partner. In addition to allowing us to provide gift cards to the First Book Marketplace for recipient schools, they’ve worked countless hours to help us identify schools and serve teachers and students with the greatest need.

Now, as BookBooster enters its third year, we wanted to share the following learnings that helped us turn our desire to help into real impact in our local community.

For donors, impact is real when it’s measurable

Oakland elementary students read about butterflies before a class experiment.

One of our goals from the beginning was to ensure that every donor could easily understand the precise value of their dollar. Fortunately, First Book provided the transparency donors need to understand their impact.

When donors give to BookBooster, they know every dollar they give will result in more books for students. And by publicizing the average book cost as $3, we could empower donors to focus less on the dollar their spending and more on the books they’re providing for students.

Such a clear conversion also helped donors understand what their dollar means for every classroom. For a class of 25 students, $75 means each student gets a books. For a school library, a $3,000 donation means a wall of empty shelves becomes stocked with 1,000 new books to help students learn and grow.

And nothing compares to seeing students enter a newly re-stocked library, dive into a new book, and feel the power of learning with each page they turn.

Donor outreach is powerful when it’s personalized

To help activate people in the Bay Area interested in helping schools in their community gain access to high-quality, on-level reading materials, we recruited BookBooster Champions — local advocates for literacy who committed to recruiting donors on BookBooster’s behalf. We provided everything they needed to get started, including a fundraising guide filled with email templates, outreach tips, and more.

While we wanted our message to be aligned, we strongly encouraged Champions to personalize their outreach. The most successful BookBooster Champions seamlessly weaved their personal stories into their outreach — stories of how access to books brought them knowledge and joy, and how they wanted others to experience the same.

Giving is greatest when it’s equitable

While participating in a book giveaway, students at an Oakland elementary select books to take home.

Holman and I set out to center BookBooster’s efforts on equity and target areas with the greatest need. We wanted to target book deserts — neighborhoods devoid of bookstores, well-stocked libraries, and resources to acquire books. To do so, we worked with First Book to leverage their Needs Index, a tool that integrates publicly available poverty statistics with First Book’s proprietary school-data and helps unveil areas where access to books was the most seldom.

From the Needs Index, BookBooster was able identify Bay Area schools with the greatest need and grow our impact tremendously. In the book deserts we serve through BookBooster, many students tell the same story — one of burning curiosity, thwarted by lack of access. For these students, especially new readers, a new book embodies a growing love for learning.

Expanding our impact

A San Francisco elementary student views his classroom library’s new books.

After a year and half, Bookbooster is helping other volunteer groups replicate our efforts in their local communities. Our website, fundraising guide, and campaign templates are available by request.

Work with us to learn how to start similar fundraising projects in your backyard and help thousands of students experience the power of reading.


Start your own fundraiser with First Book to give books and resources to kids in need.