Behind the Scenes at First Book Canada: Heather

Heather Farquharson is the Deputy Executive Director at First Book Canada.  She joined First Book Canada in November 2017. She is the connector, overseeing First Book Canada operations and managing all elements from fundraising to member communications.

What’s your day to day look like? 

I’m responsible for the integrated operations of First Book Canada. So that comes down to making sure that where we’re going from a strategic perspective is all coordinated.

A big part of my day is also spent in two ways:

  1. Supporting the fundraising activities both through grant-making, and the corporate partner relationship management
  1. Setting up an evaluation framework structure so we can explain what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.
Where were you prior to coming to First Book Canada?

I came from the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) where I was the Director of Partnerships. It was a similar role to what I’m doing now.

Why did you move from CSI to First Book Canada?

At CSI I was developing support for a large platform that helped social enterprises get off the ground and expand in scale. The opportunity to come over to First Book Canada was intriguing to me, because I wanted to go back to being close to the work rather than being a consultant. It was exciting to come “back in house” and have a hands-on role.

Why are you interested in the social enterprise sector?

I’ve worked in the nonprofit world for basically my whole career. I’ve seen it evolve over time. I love it and find it the most compelling of all the not-for-profit structures. It’s a way for a nonprofit to become sustainable in and of itself, which is essential if a nonprofit is going to achieve scale. Relying on grants and corporate sponsorships is a tenuous place to be; it’s a more robust position to be in if you have a sustainable foundation.

A social enterprise is solving a gap in the marketHere at First Book Canada, we’re solving a market gap by providing high quality books to children in need.

Now that you’re “in house” what is your favourite part of what you do on a daily basis?

There are two things that I really enjoy.

I’m a bit of an academic geek. I love the research, making the argument based on the research and the evidence behind our approach. I find that fun.

One of the best parts is actually being at the end of the line, where we’ve gotten a program off the ground, and the books are going into the hands of the kids. Seeing the kids’ faces light up, knowing that they’re so excited to have the book that they’ve chosen. They’re often surprised that they can keep it. Seeing that simple act turn into a moment of joy for a kid is great.

There are a lot of big issues that we can’t solve but we can definitely put a book in the hand of a child.

It’s also knowing that it’s not all manifest in the smile: knowing that when you’ve given that child that book, they go home and read it. A curiosity gap is opened up, a world of possibility is opened up to them in the form of that story. They may or may not have figured out how to solve a problem until they read the story and say “that’s how I work through this issue”, because it’s the same as what the protagonist is going through. And just that love of reading that they gain, it encourages them to read another book and increase their reading level. There are enormous knock on effects.

What is sometimes that would be surprising about the work that you or the work that we do to the general public?

I love all the research behind the work that we do. One thing that would be surprising to a Canadian audience is that while we live in a country with enormous gifts and wealth, a quarter of children live below the poverty line. About 25% of households across the country do not have a book in the home. Studies have shown that if you have less than 10 books at home before the age of 11, you will fall behind in school one year to 18 months behind your peers. So, the simple act of providing books to kids to have at home, giving them cultural capital and a family scholarly environment, is statistically proven to be more influential in that child’s educational achievement. More than the education level of their parents. The more books at home, the better you do outside the home.

It really comes down to a poverty prevention strategy. It’s all about education attainment, not just literacy.

Any final thoughts you want to share?

The only thing I would say is that prior to working at CSI, I worked in international development around education and health. Canadians often don’t assume that there are international development-like challenges in their own country. I would suggest that First Book Canada is tackling a similar gap you would find in developing countries around access to equal education.