Behind the Scenes at First Book Canada: Tom

Tom Best is the Executive Director of First Book Canada. When Tom started, there were only about 125 registered members. He’s seen it grow from this concentrated number to a steadily growing network of over 9,000 members.

Can you start with telling me a bit about your day to day? 

The nice thing is that no two days are the same. I feel very fortunate that way. My schedule is pretty much my own. A lot of my day to day is all about trying to find people who will help us financially, people who will connect us to potential groups that will benefit from our programs, and lead a team of remarkable individuals.

Because of my background, I also work in an ancillary role to Rebeca, as a liaison with the publishing community.

What was that transition like from publishing to the nonprofit sector?

I had been working at H.B. Fenn and Company, but I felt like I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I should be. I had a great, young team that was inspiring me. They had terrific authors and wonderful people in the organization, but something was missing. At the same time, I was very interested in literacy and charitable work, and I had served with Frontier College on their board for about 10 years. I felt doing something important at a nonprofit full time made sense to me.

Is there anything that’s really stood out to you in the changes at First Book Canada from when you started?

Well one thing is that there’s much wider acceptance of what we’re doing in the publishing community, who we rely on for book donations and purchases for the First Book Canada Marketplace.

When we first started, there was a natural suspicion about what we were doing from the publishing community, about how our work would negatively impact their day to day relationships with school. Now, we have a strong foundation, and have shown how we’re an asset to them. We’re working to disrupt that pattern of not reading by introducing books into the home. That part has been really positive.

I think we’ve finally gotten some traction with getting people to join as groups, whether that’s a school, community program, or church group. When we started I think we had maybe 120 groups. We had very few books that we were being granted. That transformation has been huge. It’s been a team effort, and it’s an indication that we’ve put in place the right building blocks.

Is there something that you really look forward when it comes up on a regular basis? 

When we have a proposal accepted by a funder, that’s a great day!

To be honest, the things I look forward to the most are still activities with kids. Being able to go into the classrooms, small school assemblies, or community programs with an author… to me, that’s a great day. I look forward to those opportunities because I see where our impact is really making a difference.

Being able to get into classrooms, small school assemblies, any of those activities with an author, to me is a great day.

Children picking up books, often for the first time, getting to find out that they can get to keep them, is very moving. It’s part of the day to day pleasure I take in the job.

Is there anything that would surprise people to know about a nonprofit from your perspective?

I knew very little about nonprofit world before I came into it from First Book Canada, other than my short foray with Story Planet. I guess the most surprising thing to me was the drive that everyone has. It reminds me of early days in publishing, or working within a small publishing company: that environment where everyone needs to be involved and pulling in the same direction. Everyone can play a role in all parts of the team, and I still like that aspect. I like where, even in my own job, I can reach into other aspects and learn things from the staff and our various partners.

Do you have any last thoughts you want to share?

One thing that I feel like we generally forget is the importance that writers and illustrators play in what we do. This is not only because they’ve created the books, but they’ve been incredibly generous with their time. I’m always grateful for that generosity. They’re the unsung heroes. It’s their stories, their work that is connecting with kids and making a difference, inspiring kids to be interested in reading generally. We couldn’t do this without their great stories and being able to provide those books. It’s the whole package.

[Authors are] the unsung heroes. It’s their stories, their work that is connecting with kids and making a difference with students, inspiring kids to be interested in reading generally.