Creating Social Value Blog / Social Innovation

Notes from the Case Files: Community Engagement

By Jesseca P. Timmons, a case writer in Entrepreneurial Studies and Social Entrepreneurship for the Lewis Institute at Babson College.

Every time we interview an entrepreneur for a case study, I am amazed how much information we can get in an hour—we can end up with a fifteen-page transcript from just one interview. Follow-up interviews can mean a hundred more pages to winnow down to a five to seven page case—not to mention reading through the history, financial reports, any press coverage, and sometimes even previous cases.

With social ventures like Year Up, InnerCity Weightlifting, or Pencils of Promise, we always get a lot of really detailed information about the programs. Case studies, however—unlike a newspaper article—aren’t focused on why or how a certain program is successful. Our focus is on the entrepreneur’s decision making progress. Thus, we always end up with a lot of fascinating details about the social program we can’t fit in the case.

For Pencils of Promise, our second interview was with Emily Gore, POP’s Director of International Programs. In the case, we outline POP’s process of building schools, from the first school in Laos which Adam had funded through social media and crowd funding in 2009,  through POP’s recent expansion into Ghana and plans to break ground on a 200th school. Emily explained POP’s method of creating truly sustainable school communities in Laos, Ghana, Nicaragua, and Thailand, and how partnering with experienced organizations already working in each region enabled POP to both vet the communities and learn the ropes:

We always partner with another organization first to learn about building in another country–we have done this in all our countries. We basically put our director next to them on the ground to learn the process, basically sitting next to the partner–and we are funding them to build something. They teach us about where/how they sourcing materials, how much things cost, the local labor.

Finally, we learned that the most crucial aspect of POP’s successful school building process is  the mandatory, permanent community engagement. Emily summarized POP’s process with the communities:

We are big believers in the investment of the community, in the theory that people will take the building for granted if they don’t have to work for it. . . So for the communities, they have promised to continue to take care of it, and for the government, they have promised to provide teachers who will receive their salaries on time, and to provide school supplies. For the community, they have promised to take care of the school–not to graffiti it, not to kick the walls, and to support the kids in the school and send the kids to school. Once the school is done, we go through the process of handing the school over to the Ministry of Education. We don’t want people to think it is a POP school–that is not the purpose at all! We have a formal handover, inauguration ceremony—we say, to the government and communities, okay, this is YOUR school.

While I could only fit a few quotes from Emily into the case, I tried to make it clear that the incredibly intricate process of community engagement is at the heart of what makes POP successful. A case like POP is too extraordinary to fit into seven pages—being able to revisit the case here helps complete their story.

For more information about Pencils of Promise, visit