If you spend any amount of time at Notre Dame, you’ve probably seen drop boxes for used books. They’re everywhere—in residence halls, classroom and administration buildings, the Main Building, the library—wherever books are used, they also can be discarded. What you may not know is just how many people are benefiting from these seemingly small acts of charity, or recycling.
Notre Dame is now a contributor to a social enterprise that began five years ago with three of its former students who had an idea, validated it through the University’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, and, through their now-thriving business, have collected 1.5 million books, raised more than $750,000 for local and international non-profit literacy initiatives, and diverted some 4.5 million pounds of books from landfills.
Friends since their freshman year at Notre Dame, Chris Fuchs, Xavier Helgesen and Jeff Kurtzman founded Better World Books (BWB) shortly after they graduated in 2001 and began experimenting with selling their old text books on the Internet. Their initial goal was to raise money for the Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC) in South Bend, and save textbooks from the trash. It worked. Their first campus drive in 2002 collected 2,500 books and raised $20,000. The group wrote the RCLC a check for $10,000. The dream expanded.
The entrepreneurs spent $300 on a used van and road tripped their ambitions to other Midwest universities where they were met with similar enthusiasm and success. When they entered the 2003 Social Venture Competition organized by the Gigot Center, they not only had a business model, they had run book drives at some 35 schools and were enjoying real revenue. They won the competition and the respect of David Murphy, a 1980 Notre Dame graduate, businessman and member of the University’s IrishAngels network, a group of alumni and friends of Notre Dame who are experienced in entrepreneurial endeavors and willing to mentor students.
“I loved the concept so much,” Murphy said. “I’ve read a lot of business plans, and on occasion there is a magic moment when one will just sort of pop out and make me say, ‘Wow! That’s clever.’”
For more than a year, Murphy served as the group’s mentor and senior advisor, until their requests for help became such a demand on his time that he decided something had to give.
“I told them Better World Books needed a CEO if the business was truly going to scale,” Murphy said, “and they said, ‘We agree. How about you?’ It was a huge decision, but it felt right, so I said yes.”
Today BWB conducts drives at more than 750 colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada. The books are shipped to a warehouse in Mishawaka, Ind., where 75 full-time employees sort and sell them online. It donates all of its profits to literacy charities, supporting dozens of non-profits in the U.S. and three global partners.
BWB has raised more than $550,000 and shipped more than 200,000 textbooks to Africa through the Books for Africa program, funded the full (12-year) education of more than 40 girls in Southeast Asia as part of the Room to Read program, and, for the National Center for Family Literacy, provided $25,000 to improve literacy for disadvantaged families in the U.S., specifically those affected by Gulf Coast hurricanes.
Locally, BWB, through its drives at Notre Dame, Indiana University South Bend and Saint Mary’s, Holy Cross and Bethel Colleges, supports the RCLC, which, by the end of this year, will have received almost $50,000.
“This critical funding from book donations supports educational programming for Robinson Center youths,” said Jay Caponigro, RCLC director. “Proceeds pay for staff to supervise tutoring and mentoring programs. More than 250 volunteers participate in initiatives that directly reach hundreds of children in more than 20 schools throughout South Bend.”
Also benefiting from a new BWB initiative are Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library and, consequently, the South Bend Center for the Homeless. BWB has established relationships with more than 350 leading academic and community libraries nationwide, including those at Harvard, Stanford and Yale Universities. Whenever participating libraries purge their shelves of old books, they are shipped to the BWB warehouse and sold on consignment. The library gets a percentage of the profit and another percentage goes to a charity group sponsored by that library. So far, BWB’s collaboration with the Hesburgh Library, which began about a year ago, has generated more than $1,200 for the library and $800 for the homeless center.
At Notre Dame, drop boxes remain scattered around campus as the spring drive winds down. It’s expected to bring in more than 7,000 books, the best effort on campus so far.
Murphy’s wife, Mary, also a 1980 Notre Dame graduate, leads BWB’s campus division in the 12 states comprising its southern region, and their daughter Caroline has served as Notre Dame’s volunteer student leader for the book drive for the past two years and will do so again when she’s a senior this fall. He applauds the University’s continued involvement, as well as its interest in creating socially conscious young businesspeople.
“The fact that the University’s Mendoza College of Business, through the Gigot Center, supports a business plan competition that has a social tract is unique,” he said.
The impact is obvious.