First Book, based in downtown Washington, is healthy.
It has $3 million in the bank, pays a $67,000 average salary to its 65 full-time employees (they are recruiting for 10 more), has zero debt and turned a surplus (“profit” is a no-no in the nonprofit sector) just shy of $2 million last year.
Over the past two decades, it has delivered 100 million books — from Dr. Seuss to college entry prep to nonfiction such as “Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America” — to schools, churches and institutions across North America that serve disadvantaged kids.
First Book says it has tapped into a “book starved” audience of 32 million children and young adults who live in poverty.
Zimmer, 52, an attorney-turned-do-gooder, doesn’t apologize for her unsentimental capitalism. It is the engine that powers her mission.
“I don’t criticize profits,” she said. “We need new models of enterprises focused on social issues that are robust and that are market-driven so that they become permanent.”
There are two parts to her business. One part, the First Book book bank, takes unsold, excess books donated by publishers and finds a home for them through a North American network of 50,000 churches, schools and organizations serving kids with special needs. First Book gets a 45-cent-per-book handling fee, but everything else is free.
The real driver at First Book is called First Book Marketplace, which allows qualified subscribers from low-income families or disadvantaged schools to buy first-rate books below what you might pay at retail or on Amazon.com.
I went to First Book’s Marketplace Web site and found Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat” for $3.30. A visit to Amazon.com showed the hardcover priced at $5.28. The price difference really adds up when books are purchased in batches — like for 30 kids in a classroom.
Last year, Marketplace sold $7.5 million worth of books, which was the biggest part of the nonprofit’s $12.6 million in revenue. About $3.5 million was donated by corporations such as Disney, Barclays, KPMG and General Mills and from philanthropist/cosmetics heiress Aerin Lauder. Another $800,000 came from handling fees in the book bank.
Most of the revenue pays for books, leases, some travel and other expenses. After salaries (Zimmer’s is $180,000), benefits (a 401k match, health care and “a little bit” of a pension), rent and other costs, the net last year was about $1.9 million.
Zimmer is not in it for the money.
She grew up loving books, newspapers and magazines in Zanesville, Ohio, where the New York Times thumped onto the doorstep every morning. Her father ran a glass factory, while her mother, a homemaker, instilled in her a strong belief that education was the ticket upward.