Startups take all shapes and sizes and this week we highlight our first Not for Profit, Library for All. Rebecca McDonald was working in Haiti when she recognized that one of biggest challenges for children’s education in developing countries was gaining access to quality reading materials. With the improvement in access of digital capacity in many of these countries Library for All came up with a neat solution, read about their journey here.
Tell us about Library For All and what inspired you to come to start it in the USA.
There are 250 million children in the world that are not learning the basics of reading and writing, even after four years of schooling. A lack of access to quality reading material in their own language is one of the key barriers to children becoming literate.
Library For All is a nonprofit organization that has built a digital library to address the lack of access to culturally specific literature and educational resources in developing countries. Our mission is to make knowledge accessible to all, equally. Our digital library is a cost-effective, portable alternative to building physical libraries. In areas where books are scarce but mobile phone networks are growing, Library For All delivers a cloud-based library of locally relevant content to devices that already exist in developing countries, such as mobile phones, tablets, and PCs.
I chose New York to begin with because I was living in Haiti at the time, and I knew that, to be successful, we needed to build relationships with individuals in the publishing industry. New York is the center of the publishing world, so it was a natural fit early on.
What has been your ‘Ah Ha’ / ‘I’ve made it in the USA moment’:
Ha – that’s funny I haven’t had that moment yet. We did however have a very cool “only in NYC” moment last year, when Bloomberg Philanthropies hosted an event for Library For All, and Mike Bloomberg spoke of how important libraries were to him growing up and the importance of the work we are doing today. I truly believe reading is a basic human right. I can’t imagine thinking we have made it until every child on the planet has access to the resources they need to become literate.
What have been the hardest lessons in starting a Not for Profit in New York and how does it differ to Australia?
Being an Aussie I always felt a little out of place in New York. It’s a tough place to get established. A lot of people have said to me New York is a hustle, and I feel like that is true. There are a lot of people here trying to make their way and be successful and often that doesn’t align with our mission-driven focus. That being said, I have met and worked alongside some of the most generous and kind individuals who have done everything in their power and given tremendously generously to ensure Library For All is successful. I think New York is just such a melting pot that you get extremes of every type of person all mushed together on the subway at once. It can be overwhelming at times. Australia is so much more relaxed. So much more relational and I find it easier to meet people and build long term relationships in Australia.
Where have you been most successful in marketing Library for All?
Word of mouth by far has been the most successful for us. When people hear about us from a friend or family member, the connection is made so much faster and more authentically. We always talk about the Library For All family – once you are in that’s it we don’t let you go. That’s the way its been for us since day one. Family of staff coming along and getting excited about what we are doing and then spreading that infectious enthusiasm to see the world changed to everyone around them.
Do you have any mentors, and how have people been with sharing information and their networks?
Yes, absolutely. Our board chair Philippa Tyndale and her husband Andrew have been incredible mentors and supporters over the years. We were friends long before Library For All, but going through the ups and downs of a nonprofit start up with them has been an incredible privilege. I am extremely blessed to have them in my life and on this journey. They are seasoned business professionals and philanthropists, and I have learnt so much from their years of experience. They are also the best networkers you will ever meet, and they are always looking for ways to connect people and add value to everyone they are introduced to, which has been incredibly valuable to our mission success.
What advice would you give someone thinking about starting a Not for Profit?
First, I would say ensure that nobody else is doing the same or similar work. If they are, get involved with them and don’t start a new organization. Get behind them in a big way and really amplify their efforts. There is too much duplication and waste in the nonprofit space, and its just not necessary. If you find there is absolutely nobody working to meet the need you see, and you absolutely must start a new organization, then weigh everything very carefully. It’s not a commitment you should make lightly. Nonprofit work is rarely easy, and it costs a lot both financially and personally. While it’s extremely rewarding, you have to go in with your eyes wide open or you won’t survive the really hard days.
You are one of the Co-founders of Library For All – what are the challenges and pleasures in starting a Not for Profit with a friend?
Tanyella and I didn’t know each other when I started Library For All. We were actually introduced by her husband, Hugh, who is also an Aussie. We have gotten to know each other and become friends over the journey. I am really grateful we met, as we have such different but complimentary skill sets, and it has really been the best thing for Library For All. It would be a very lonely road if you started a nonprofit all by yourself. There are just too many hats you have to wear and very few people, if any, can wear all of them well simultaneously. I have also had two children during the life of Library For All, and I don’t know how that would have been possible without Tanyella’s support. I have to also mention my husband here because without him none of this would have happened. He was the original champion for Library For All, without him pushing me to start it and getting behind me 100% this would just never of happened. He is my constant support and has sacrificed his own career to take care of our babies and allow me to pursue Library For All. He truly believes in our mission, and he is my constant cheerleader and sounding board.
Other than yourself, what piece of Australia have you put into your business?
Openness, honesty, and humility are three of the main things that I have tried to infuse into the culture of Library For All. I love the way Aussies call it like it is and fakeness just isn’t tolerated. Openness and honesty are very important to me from an organizational perspective because development work is really hard and messy and unless you can be open about what works and what doesn’t work, what is the point. More people will just make the same mistakes wasting valuable resources. I truly believe that we can only change the world’s ills if we work together hand in hand and you can’t partner with someone you can’t be honest with.
The other one is humility. I would rather our work speak for itself and that we be judged on our impact and not on who we know or some other popular metric. At the end of the day I started Library For All to impact literacy across the globe, and our team won’t rest until we achieve that.
What is next for Library for All?
We have really learnt over the last 3 years what it takes to launch our programs in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. I am very excited that we can now take that learning and accelerate our impact. We know our model and we know what works and doesn’t work, and I am excited that we should now be able to scale faster then ever before. There are approximately 8,500 children reading on Library For All’s platform, but I would like to see that jump into the millions in a few short years.
How can people help?
We are always on the look out for companies and individuals that want to change the world and are passionate about books and reading and know the transformational impact that being literate has on a person. If our mission resonates with you and you want to get involved, please go to our website, in the work with us us section there are a number of ways to be involved. We love welcoming new members to the Library For All family and bringing you along the journey. Together we can achieve so much more.
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