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Not your typical corporate giving story

How a little inspiration, buy-in from colleagues, and a generous matching grant made one Madison American Family Insurance employee’s dream of building a school in Ghana a reality.

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This story ends in the Adaklu Avelebe community of southeastern Ghana, nearly 6,000 miles from Madison geographically but worlds away in many other ways.

There you’ll find a sturdy three-classroom schoolhouse, completed in June of this year, that’s filled with the laughter and learning of pre-primary and kindergarten students.

To find out how this school came to be, we need to travel back about 20 months, back to Madison and American Family Insurance.

Pencils of Promise

To hear Stuart Rogers, marketing business operations director at American Family, tell it, his quest to build a school across an ocean began modestly enough.

Rogers first learned about Pencils of Promise through an author he follows, but he says he was really inspired to get involved after hearing Adam Braun, Pencils of Promise founder, speak live at an American Family leadership event in January 2016.

Can you imagine not being able to read this sentence?


According to the 2013/4 UNESCO EFA Global Monitoring Report, 250 million children of primary school age lack basic reading, writing, and math skills.

Modest is actually how Pencils of Promise got its own start. According to the Pencils of Promise website, the organization was inspired by an encounter Braun had in 2008 with a young child he met while traveling in South Asia.

Braun, then a young Brown grad and Bain & Company consultant by trade, had a passion for backpacking. He would ask one child per country he visited what they would want if they could have anything in the world. One boy in South Asia said that his biggest wish was simple — a pencil. That answer changed Braun’s life.

He put $25 into a bank account and threw himself a 25th birthday party with the goal of building one school. Together, Braun’s friends raised $25,000, which built a preschool in Pha Theung, Laos.

When he shared photos of the build process and the students in their new classrooms, his friends saw their dollars changing lives and wanted to build schools of their own — as did their families and the companies they worked for. Pencils of Promise was born.

Today, Pencils of Promise works in Ghana, Guatemala, Laos, and Nicaragua and has broken ground on over 400 preschools and primary schools in remote and underserved regions.

Stuart Rogers

“Having three children of my own, I know how important education is and how excited kids are to learn,” says Rogers. “The thought that any of my kids could easily have grown up without the educational opportunities that they have just breaks my heart. Like many, I want every child to have access to quality education and Pencils of Promise is making that dream a reality for thousands of kids around the world.”

According to Rogers, Braun hadn’t even finished his presentation to American Family leaders and yet Rogers was already texting others to express his enthusiasm for the idea forming in his head.

“That evening I approached our CEO, Jack Salzwedel, with my idea to build a school,” recalls Rogers. “His response — ‘That sounds great, get it done.’ — was the gasoline on the small fire that I needed. That night, I went home and set up a website through Pencils of Promise. The next morning, I was given the opportunity to say a few words and challenged our leadership team of approximately 200 people to raise $25,000 (the cost in 2016 for Pencils of Promise to build a school in one of the communities in which they work).

“Immediately after I finished, [Salzwedel] pledged that if the leaders in the room raised $25,000, the American Family Dreams Foundation, our Community Investment team, would match those donations to make it $50,000,” Rogers continues. “Then it was a full-on social media and word-of-mouth campaign. I tweeted and emailed out links to donate and asked people to help make my dream a reality, and they came through. Over the next 28 hours, American Family leaders contributed $28,000. Along with the $25,000 from the Dreams Foundation, that meant we were giving Pencils of Promise $53,000 to build a school and fund it for three years.”

Judd Schemmel, community investment director for American Family Insurance, notes this project was a bit of a departure from the company’s typical corporate giving campaign.

“We encourage philanthropy within our employee and agent groups,” says Schemmel. “To this end, in 2016 American Family, through its Dreams Foundation, established a matching gift program where the Foundation will follow the lead of employees and agents and match donations they make to organizations important to them. In the case of Pencils of Promise, while this was a bit outside our regular matching gift program, the opportunity arose organically, and the Dreams Foundation decided to support this initiative that had gained a great deal of momentum with a broad range of employees and agents in a brief period of time.”


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