Inside the merger of Children's Book Bank and SMART Reading – Portland Business Journal – Portland Business Journal

When Dani Swope set out to donate her children’s retired books in 2007, she had no idea she would go on to found a nonprofit that would provide more than a million books to Portland children over the next 13 years. “The Book Lady,” as some called her, was inundated with calls from groups in need of children’s books, prompting Swope to launch the Children’s Book Bank, or CBB, in 2008.
While Swope turned the page on her role as CBB’s executive director in Aug. 2020, her legacy’s work is far from over. Nearly a year after Swope’s departure, the boards of directors for CBB and SMART Reading, another literacy nonprofit, announced the intent to merge the organizations in 2022.
While the merger prompted questions from supporters and employees, SMART Reading Executive Director Chris Otis said it’s a combination that will strengthen both organizations. The nonprofits have shared goals and the leadership knows one another well, having collaborated in the past to form the Early Literacy Success Alliance in 2019.
“SMART Reading and The Children’s Book Bank are merging because our collective whole is greater than the sum of our parts,” Otis said in announcing the merger. “By coming together intentionally as one organization, we’ll be poised to better serve Oregon kids with reading support and access to books — two of the strongest predictors of early literacy skills.”
Since 2008, CBB’s sole focus has been curating and distributing free book bundles to children at Title One schools throughout Multnomah County. Community members drop off their used books to CBB’s Northeast warehouse, where volunteers clean and organize them into personalized green bags for each child to bring home from a summer book fair.
SMART launched in 1992 to improve Oregon’s low literacy scores. The nonprofit coordinates volunteers who, in a pre-Covid environment, connect with children at their schools through weekly, one-on-one book readings. The children, or “smarties,” get to select new books for readings and take them home for keeps.
“I’ve been a reader in the program for the almost 11 years that I’ve been with SMART,” said Otis. “And I can tell you the kids benefit from being able to pick those books.”
SMART volunteers have since adapted their classroom outreach to virtual platforms, and the demand for book distribution has only increased with widened socio-economic hardships exacerbated by the pandemic. As such, Otis and Swope view the merger as a natural progression of their common goal to benefit the most children in Oregon.
Over the last decade, SMART and CBB have distributed free books to over 227,000 students from Preschool to 3rd grade, many of which come from low-income school districts and disenfranchised communities.
Both nonprofits also emphasize the practice of providing books with diverse protagonists and stories in different languages. In doing so, Swope believes CBB can “better meet the needs of our community and provide books that are more inclusive and representative of the communities that we serve.”
Parents and teachers are not left out of the equation either. Otis believes having SMART volunteers in class gives teachers a break, while Swope views free books as a benefit to parents.
“Having books at home just gives them that extra resource to read with their kids from an early age and support all that great parent guardian family bonding that goes on,” said Swope.
What remains to be seen is how smoothly the two organizations can be integrated. Merging staff and systems will take time. What’s certain, Otis said, is that children remain the central focus.
“For this first portion of the merge,” explained Otis, “we’ve been in conversations for over a year now and did a lot of due diligence work, and there’s still a lot of nuts and bolts to come together before we do any actual legal filings.”
Neither CBB nor SMART anticipates any downsizing as a result of the combination.
“One of the things that we agreed to in the early conversations, among other key principles, is that we would look to find a new home for everybody on the team,” said Otis.
Swope added that since leaving her position in Aug. 2020, the CBB team has been operating with an interim director.
“I think that that’s going to make the glide path a little smoother as the CBB team merges into the SMART team.”
As for Swope’s future, the founder said she will always be a supporter of early literacy in Oregon. “I expect I’ll be involved in some way behind the scenes,” said Swope. “But I don’t know what my next chapter holds just yet.”
Children’s Book Bank, SMART Reading
Combined Oregon sites served: 360+
Full-time staff: CBB, 9; SMART, 38
Volunteers: CBB, 3,500; SMART, 5,000 (pre-pandemic)
Annual budgets: CBB, $750K; SMART $4.2M
1992: SMART debuts, launching in eight schools, serving 585 children
2008: The Children’s Book Bank launches
2016-2017: SMART celebrates its 25th anniversary
2020: SMART transitions to a virtual model to continue serving children during the pandemic
Oct. 14, 2021: SMART, CBB announces their intent to merge
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