The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of First Book

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Better Than Most is a regular feature of The Business of Giving examining the best places to work among social good businesses and nonprofit organizations. 

Denver: Today, we will be heading down to our nation’s capital and to the offices of First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise that provides new books, learning materials and other essentials to children in need. We will begin with their President and CEO, Kyle Zimmer, and then hear from the other members of the staff about the secret sauce that makes First Book a special place to work.


Kyle Zimmer and Denver Frederick

Kyle: Culture of the organization is paramount because it will affect everything you do… and a lot of things that you can’t do. It’s been important to us from the day we opened our doors. I believe strongly in team leadership. I don’t believe that having a single lone wolf at the helm of an organization is a healthy strategy; I don’t think it is a sustainable strategy. And so for starters, we have a team of four people at the top of the organization who are really co-equals in running it. In addition, we really work hard to elevate entrepreneurial thinking and to attract entrepreneurs into the organization

Jennifer:  I’ve been given opportunities to be challenged and to really manage up. So to do things that I’ve never had the opportunity to do before and really show and prove myself as a professional, and I think that’s really special and not every organization gives their employees an opportunity to do that.

Michael: The thing about First Book that always has me coming back for more is it’s kind of like coming to a playground of challenges every day and hanging out there with your friends. And so, under the big umbrella of getting more books out into the world, there are all of these smaller umbrella challenges, and smaller problems and issues and tasks to go through, whether it’s how do we get books to rural areas more effectively, whether it’s how do we let our network talk to each other so that they’re using our books more effectively or how do we make it easier for everybody in the US or people abroad to get books. There’s always this sense of there’s another great challenge, there’s another thing to work on, and you’ve got a lot of cool, interesting, smart people to roll up your sleeves with and try to figure them out.


Dan: And after we hit a great milestone, we’ll pop some champagne, we’ll eat and we’ll laugh and have a good time, and then we clean up and we get right back to climbing that hill. So I think it’s critically important that you’re able to come to a job that challenges you, that has a great mission, but also allows you to have a good time.

Paula:  I’ve been at First Book for almost 10 years already, and one of my favorite things about the organization is how fearless we are and how we don’t settle for things that we have already achieved. We keep looking for more. We set challenges and goals, but once we have achieved those, we look for more.

Anna: But we really are trying to meet the goals of that corporate partner and the goals of First Book. So as we grow and change and the partner grows and change, we want to make sure that we’re fitting in and making the best out of all of the goals and the needs of both parties.


Jennifer: So in every single performance evaluation that I’ve had at First Book, my manager has given me the opportunity to talk about my performance and how I feel about it, but also talk about their performance and how I feel about their management style, what’s working for me and what’s not working for me, and what they can do better to make sure that I feel supported, to make sure that I feel successful, and to make sure that I’m challenged and see a future for me here at First Book. So that, I think, is really important to me. It makes me feel valued in the same way that each one of our members feel valued.

Dan: I ask them questions like “What is your professional Shangri-La when it comes to work environment?” “Would you prefer to work in an office alone or with other folk?” “Can you make a joke or take a joke?” These are things that are important to the culture here, so these are questions that I’m constantly asking candidates when their potentially looking for jobs, including “Why First Book? Why would you want a job here?”

Roxana: I think that’s the kind of environment that we come to everyday that makes it really easy to come to work, and I think we get to celebrate it with traditions that we sort of look forward to. I’m going to say one that I enjoy a lot just because I think it defines, for me, First Book – it’s our Halloween celebration. Because we go all out, people get very creative and very competitive about “What are we going to do for Halloween? Because we have to come up top. We’re going to have to really rock it this year.” And people are so committed to the work that they find ways to put thematic/themes into their costumes and just really have a lot of fun, so that makes coming to work really, really special.


Paula: We not only do that through our program such as the Stories For All program in which we try to bring to schools titles that speak to minorities and different groups of people, but we also do a lot of that within the organization. Wherever you look in the offices here in Washington, you’re going to see a diverse group of people from different backgrounds, and First Book does a great job of making them feel inclusive, included in every single thing that we do as an organization.

Chandler: I was going to talk about work life balance, which maybe I don’t achieve so well all the time, but, in a way , I kind of love that because work life balance sort of implies that the thing that you do during the day is somehow other than who you are at core. And I think for me and I think for a lot of us here, I get a lot of my identity out of this organization and who we are in terms of the work that we’re doing together.



Chandler: I think one thing that I’m really proud of with regard to our culture is really trying to encourage a culture of innovation. I think that a lot of groups do that and they tend to focus on good innovative ideas that work, which is great, but we also really try to celebrate good innovative ideas that fail.

The way we do that is something called the First Book Brick Award and our Brick Wall Award, sort of illustrating the fact that we know that sometimes you have a great idea and for whatever reason, you hit a brick wall and it doesn’t work. But the thing that we want to celebrate is the people that have ideas that really are passionate about them. They think about ways to lay them out. They don’t let a fear of failure stop them from sort of pushing the boundaries of creativity, pushing the limits of what we usually do, challenging conventions that we might always have held in the past. So by purposefully calling out once a year the best ideas that failed, we really try to encourage everyone to not let the fear of failure prevent them from trying that thing that might really propel us forward.

Denver: I want to thank Joyce Johansson who helped organize my visit and to all those who participated, Anna Anderson, Chandler Arnold, Jennifer Cobb, Michael Jones, Dan Stokes, Roxana Barillas and Paula Neira. Podcast, transcript and pictures of the participants in the office of the First Book are all up on


The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at

Doug Powell, Designer at IBM, Joins Denver Frederick

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The following is a conversation between Doug Powell, Distinguished Designer at IBM, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.

dap_headshot02_cropDenver: I am at the Measured Summit and I’m now speaking with Doug Powell, Distinguished Designer at IBM Design. Good evening, Doug.

Doug: It’s great to be with you. Thanks, Denver.

Denver: IBM embarked on a complete redesign of its company back in 2013, which is an incredibly ambitious program. You’re one of those lead designers. So, tell us, what inspired it and what are you doing?

Doug: Well, it’s really about connecting with the people who use IBM technology and really understanding who they are, what their needs are, and finding ways to design and develop tools and technology that really meet those needs in a very human way.

The users of our technology traditionally and historically have been deeply technical people – engineers and developers. And what we found in the last decade or so is that more and more of our users are less and less technical, so think about nurses and teachers and data scientists and small business owners. That requires us to think about the tools we’re building in a different way. Designers happen to have the skills to really address problems with a user and human focus, so that’s really what inspired the design-driven reinvention of IBM, as you said. It was about four or five years ago that the program was launched.

Denver: And I guess users today, they want something delightful and intuitive and fun and mobile.

Doug: Yes. And it has to be available to them anytime, anywhere, in their pocket, in their purse, in their backpack. The tolerance for a bad user experience has evaporated, whether it’s in personal technology or in the technology we use for our work, which is IBM’s focus, of course. That line between work and life has completely blurred at this point. The bar for a great user experience is incredibly high right now and we need to be reaching that bar and even setting that bar in the experiences we’re building.

Denver: And at IBM, Doug, you had about 100 or 200 designers or about 350,000 or 400,000-person organization. That has expanded dramatically.

Doug: Right. We’ve hired now more than 1,200 formally trained designers into IBM. We now have more than 1,500 in the company making IBM the largest employer of designers in the world, which is kind of a surprising little piece of trivia for many people. But it’s exciting. It’s really cool.

Denver: Tell us a little bit about the impact the design has had in the business world. Can you please give us an example or two of that?

Doug: Well, you go back now almost exactly 10 years to the release or the introduction of iPhone in early 2007. And that was a pivot point. That was really the moment that everything as we look back on this era is going to be before iPhone and after iPhone. And it really demonstrated that design and user experience is a business driver and it is increasingly the single way that businesses can distinguish themselves. Everything else has been commoditized. You can’t find an edge anymore in supply chain or manufacturing or materials or even advertising and media. It really comes down to the kind of experience, the quality of the experience that you can deliver.

Denver: What has the impact of design been in the social sector and particularly in health care and in education?

Doug: I think healthcare is a place where, quite frankly as we all know, os a pretty lousy user experience. We all are required at different points in our life to engage with the healthcare system, and I don’t know anybody who really looks forward to that experience. So that means that there is an opportunity. That’s an opportunity space for designers to make a difference and we’re just seeing so much cool stuff.

We’re going to see at the Measured Summit just some great examples of designers making a difference in health care, from the patient experience level of doctors and caregivers interacting with patients in different way up to the systems level, and at IBM that’s where we play, at the systems level. Our Watson Health business is just doing incredible work in making sense of just unthinkable amounts of medical data that is out there and packaging that data in a way that is consumable for clinicians who are making diagnosis so that they can have access to far more relevant data than they ever have before.

Denver: I think it was Thomas Watson who said, “Good design is good business.”

Doug: Indeed. In fact, that’s interesting that you point that out because we just discovered a memo that Watson Jr. had written to his executive leadership and it was dated December 20, 1966, which means that a few weeks back, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of “Good design is good business.” And so that’s pretty cool. It’s cool, as a designer, in the year 2017 to be able to reach back a half century into a great heritage of design and really be inspired by that.

Denver: Well, what you’re doing is pretty cool as well. Thanks very much, Doug Powell, Distinguished Designer at IBM, for being on The Business of Giving this evening.

Doug: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter and at of giving.

Seeking “One Brave Idea” to End Heart Disease: Nancy Brown and The American Heart Association

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Heart disease is the #1 killer in this country, but 80% of it is preventable, according to Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. In this segment from The Business of Giving, Ms. Brown spells out the different programs of AHA devised to reduce death from heart disease and to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans.


Nancy Brown, Chief Executive Officer of The American Heart Association

Heart disease is the #1 killer in this country, but 80% of it is preventable, according to Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association. In this segment from The Business of Giving, Ms. Brown spells out the different programs of AHA devised to reduce death from heart disease and to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans.

She also discusses how mission-aligned businesses of AHA are generating 9-figure revenues for the organization, and how they and their partners are using crowdsourcing to find “One Brave Idea” to find a cure for coronary disease. Finally, she shares the keys to alignment, passion and camaraderie in a national charity.
The following is a conversation between Nancy Brown, Chief Executive Officer of the American Heart Association and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City. It has been edited for clarity.

Denver: More than one in three American adults suffers from cardiovascular disease. To provide a little context: more women will die from heart disease this year than from all the cancers combined. So, Americans are fortunate that the person charged with leading the oldest and largest volunteer organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke, has created a culture of innovation. In so doing, she has forged some extraordinary partnerships and is increasing the amount of resources available to help better the lives of all Americans. That leader is Nancy Brown, Chief Executive Officer of The American Heart Association, and it is my pleasure to welcome her to The Business of Giving. Good evening, Nancy, and thanks for being with us this evening.

Nancy: Good evening, Denver. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Denver: So, tell us about the American Heart Association, a little about your history, and more about the mission and objectives of the organization.

Nancy: Absolutely! I’d be delighted to. As you’ve mentioned, the American Heart Association is actually the world’s oldest and largest voluntary health organization dedicated to fighting cardiovascular diseases and stroke. We’ve been in existence since 1924. At the foundation of the American Heart Association’s work is the scientific enterprise of the AHA–coupled with our grassroots presence in communities throughout America–and our presence in 70 international locations. In these,  we dedicate our resources to help make the world a better place for people, and to prevent heart disease and stroke. We are guided by the organization’s 2020 strategic impact goal: which is to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20% by the year 2020, while reducing deaths from heart disease and stroke by 20% during that same timeframe. So this decade-long goal really is the goal that is the guidepost for the work of the organization.

Denver: Let me ask you a bit about heart attacks. I went around to a couple of my buddies this week, and I said, “Do you know what a heart attack is exactly? How does it differ from cardiac arrest?”  I have to tell you, Nancy, the answers were a little fuzzy; they were a bit uncertain. So give us an abbreviated heart disease 101 course if you would.

Nancy: Sure! I’d be pleased to. So, heart disease is, as you said, the country’s and the world’s number one killer. Heart disease is 80% preventable!  What happens when a person has a heart attack, is that the arteries or vessels leading to the heart muscle generally become blocked. They become blocked from atherosclerosis– which happens as we age, and also happens because of a hardening of arteries in individuals who have high blood pressure. When the arteries narrow, or when the arteries are blocked due to atherosclerosis, the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen, therein causing the heart, in some cases, to have a heart attack. There is another kind of heart attack called a  “sudden cardiac arrest,” which is actually not a heart attack at all.  That is a misnomer. A sudden cardiac arrest happens when the electrical functions of the heart malfunction, and a person’s heart suddenly stops.

Denver: Completely.

Nancy: And that person can be revived generally through CPR or through a defibrillator, if one is available, or if people are trained in CPR. We can come back and talk about the role the American Heart Association has played in that over time. The important thing– if you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart attack or symptoms of a stroke–is to call 911 and get emergency care immediately! (more…)