How First Book Advances Racial Equity Through Innovative Partnerships

Guest post written by Kyle Zimmer, President, CEO & Co-founder of First Book. Kyle is a member of the Forbes Nonprofit Council. This article was originally published on Forbes.

The events of the past year have created a tipping point in the fight for racial justice. As a nation, we cannot move forward until we take responsibility and dismantle our country’s deeply engrained inequities.

Nonprofits have a unique collective responsibility and opportunity: to build innovative cross-sector partnerships aimed to address and challenge the racial inequities that stymie our nation.

At First Book, racial equity has been integral to our work since our founding 30 years ago. Our mission is to advance educational equity for children in poverty, which disparately impacts children of color. Our network of educators currently numbers more than half a million strong, with 1,000 joining weekly; 75% of those educators report that the majority of kids they serve are children of color. We’ve seen how racism is impacting millions of children and families — dragging our country down and thwarting the future for us all.

Creating real change requires innovative cross-sector partnerships and strategies that engage the strengths and assets of the private and social sectors. Here’s how we have created partnerships to advance racial equity and how nonprofit leaders can embark on similar innovative cross-sector coalitions.

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Look for Partners with an Activist Mindset

The most effective partners are those who want to create positive social change and see themselves and their organizations in positions to engage in making that change.

First Books seeks partners who share our passion for educational equity and addressing racial injustice — with the same urgency that drives us. We have a broad range of partnerships — with corporations, nonprofits, teachers’ unions, and others — all with a laser focus on taking bold action to support children and families in poverty and further educational opportunities.

It’s past time for partners on both sides of the table to ask tough questions about disrupting the status quo, and how we can drive equity together. If your partners aren’t ready to shake things up with bold action, it may be time to look for new partners.

Use Data to Inform Your Partnerships and Create Win-Wins

Just like the private sector, leaders in the nonprofit space can use research to drive efforts. First Book created a research arm, First Book Research & Insights, because data from the field not only informs our social enterprise models, it also enables our partners to learn what is most needed by children/families in poverty.

For example, a survey of the First Book Network supported by Pizza Hut revealed that 66% of educators want to proactively talk with students about race, but don’t feel comfortable doing so. To address this, First Book and Pizza Hut partnered with anti-bias, antiracist experts to create resources, and launched the effort in a webinar with the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. This cross-sector partnership resulted in a range of resources for educators to create equitable learning environments and more confidently navigate conversations about race and racism.

Research-fueled partnerships enable nonprofits to leverage their knowledge of and access to those on the frontlines, enabling partners to learn what kind of support is needed to create equal opportunities and the types of solutions that will be most effective in addressing these opportunity gaps. Equally important is obtaining feedback after initiatives have launched and then using that input as part of a rapid-cycle review process.

Identify Market Failures and Determine Levers to Create Systemic Change

Nonprofits by their very nature tackle needs that are unmet by the market. Addressing those needs requires critical evaluation to understand why this market failure is occurring and what levers you can use to solve the issue.

For decades, the lack of diverse books made it difficult for children of color to see themselves in stories — making reading and education seem irrelevant. Our surveys have shown that students would be more enthusiastic readers if they had books reflecting their lives. To address this market failure, we launched the Stories for All Project™, issuing an RFP to publishers that our organization would purchase $500,000 worth of nonreturnable inventory from the publisher with the best selection of diverse titles. The publishers’ response was so overwhelming that we doubled our investment, purchasing $1 million in inventory. No educator on their own could drive this level of change, but by aggregating the voice and purchasing power of our network, we were able to partner with publishers to increase access to more affordable, high-quality diverse books in a matter of weeks.

Whether you operate at a local, regional, or national level, how can you amplify the collective needs of the population you serve to create change? What additional strategies, levers or new partnerships can you develop to solve market failures that contribute to racial inequity?

A Call for New Thinking Across Sectors

The need for change has never been more clear — and as social sector leaders, we have a collective responsibility and a unique role to advance racial justice. To make real progress, we must reach across sectors to engage like-minded partners on issues of education, affordable housing, food insecurity, the justice system, income inequality, and more. We must be intentional to develop innovative solutions that allow all children and families to thrive in our multiracial society. The clock is ticking.


Partner with First Book

First Book works closely with leading businesses, nonprofits, and individuals to promote equal access to quality education for kids in need. Together, we have distributed more than 200 million new books and learning materials to schools and programs serving children from low-income families.

We are deeply grateful for the support of our generous partners and eager to collaborate with other outstanding organizations that care about making a difference on behalf of kids and heroic educators. We would love to explore ways to work together and provide many more books and resources to kids who need them.

To learn more about partnering with First Book, contact us at 202.393.1222 or e-mail us.

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