May 17, 2016 | The Story Exchange

Stacy Ratner spent 7 years co-founding and building technology businesses — and the last decade applying everything she learned as a serial entrepreneur to growing a high-impact nonprofit organization.

That organization is Open Books, whose businesslike approach is helping thousands of Chicago youth learn to read and, what’s more, write for fun. It collects hundreds of thousands of used books each year, sells them at two bookstores and online, and channels the proceeds to its reading and writing programs, measuring “profits” in literacy gains.

Ratner founded Open Books in 2006 after learning that a shocking 30 percent of Chicagoans are functionally illiterate — they have trouble reading labels on food, filling out job applications, deciphering bus schedules. An avid reader (and novelist in her dreams), Ratner realized there was a huge need for literacy services, and believed she could make the biggest impact by targeting young people.

Today, Open Books has 18 employees and 500 volunteers a year and runs on an annual budget of $1.4 million. Some 70 percent of that sum is earned income from book sales, with the rest coming from grants and gifts. That budget allows Open Books to operate its stores, run programs that serve about 5,000 K-12 students a year, and give away 100,000 books to students, teachers and other Chicago nonprofits.

By design, Ratner, whose business acumen is belied by a shock of green hair, operates Open Books a lot like a typical for-profit business. The organization sells a product, donated used books, to make money. As with profit-making businesses, all its efforts serve one end: “build something that people want to be a part of and get them to put their time, their money and their heart into it,” she says.

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