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Opinion: A worthy pursuit to end the book famine in Africa

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Interview with Norm Linnell, Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Donaldson Company

By Mike Felmlee, CEO, Prouty Project

I had an opportunity to catch up with Norm Linnell, Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Donaldson Company, the other day. Many CEOs in the non-profit sector seek the knowledge and business acumen of senior executives from publicly traded companies, and Norm certainly fits that description. He has many board opportunities to choose from and he has elected to put his precious time and energy around an organization called simply, Books for Africa.

Books for Africa (BFA) is the largest shipper of donated text and library books to the African Continent. Since its inception in 1988, it has shipped over 28 million books to 49 different countries. In 2012 alone, it shipped more than 2.2 million books valued at $28.3M to 22 countries in Africa and shipped another 600 computers and 15 brand new law libraries. Simply amazing.

Please read on to discover why he chooses to lend his leadership skills and volunteer his time to this simple organization.

Norm, why did you choose to join the board of Books for Africa?

Before you buy a car – you kick the tires. I think you need to do that before joining any board. I first connected with Books for Africa when my middle school daughter and I volunteered at the warehouse in St. Paul and helped unpack and sort books. Many of the other volunteers were immigrants from Africa who were giving back because they knew first-hand what a difference a book can make in the life of a child or adult in Africa. I joined the Board several years later because my volunteer experiences helped me understand that Books for Africa is one of the most effective and impactful organizations in either the for-profit or non-profit worlds. Fifty cents delivers a book to a child in Africa that might otherwise never have the chance to read and create a better future. Research shows that the donated book will be read by five or more persons.

You mean it only costs 50 cents to send a book to Africa. How can this be true?

It is a great value. BFA can do this because everyone from large publishing organizations to families donate the books so the costs are kept to a minimum and the 50 cents goes to pay the shipping costs to get the books to Africa. So the books are donated, the cost of getting the books to our warehouse is donated, labor to pack the books is donated, and the distribution in Africa is donated. It is a huge leveraging of donated resources!

As President of this organization, what do you see as your biggest challenge for Books for Africa over the next few years?

I think that as we look to the future and the increasing use of digital media, we can see that there may be fewer books in circulation in the United States as time goes on. So, while hard copy books will still be very much in need and valuable in Africa and be very cost effective, the supply of donated books could dry up. We need to be ready for that and be proactive because the need for educational materials in Africa will not go away just because hard-copy books in the U.S. are less available.

What have you learned in your tenure on the board?

I have learned that collaboration is key in life and in healthy organizations and boards. Books for Africa has a wonderful Board, staff and global network of giving partners that provide such a fun and wide range of skills and experiences. Broadening my horizons and taking on new challenges has been a great way to give back – and funny how it works, you really do get more out of it than you give.

Any advice you’d give to other executives who might be interested in serving on non-profit boards?

Go for it. Volunteer your time and talents and you will never regret it.

Any final words of wisdom?

Aren’t you the guy who sums it all up? Wisdom comes with experience and the growing pains and joy that come from being an active and not a passive participant in life.

Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary-General: “Books for Africa is a simple idea, but its impact is transformative. For us, literacy is quite simply the bridge from misery to hope."

Thanks Norm for your leadership and service to a great organization. If you would like to help or donate to Books for Africa, please go to their website:

Mike Felmlee is the CEO of the Prouty Project and he works with management teams and boards of directors to facilitate strategic planning, team and leadership development, and executive retreats. Mike has 28 years of financial and operational management experience in the healthcare, manufacturing, and public accounting industries.

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