When education philanthropy is discussed, the usual names come up: Bill Gates, Chan-Zuckerberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, the Walton Foundation. But one woman who’s rarely discussed has made a huge difference for pre-schoolers across the country and around the world, and that’s Dolly Parton.
Parton comes from one of the poorest parts of the country, Sevier County, Tennessee. She grew up with eleven siblings. a mother who had married in the seventh grade, and a father who could neither read nor write. Parton once said, “He couldn’t write his own name. He wouldn’t even recognize our names if he saw it on a paper, but my dad was one of the smartest people I knew. He just didn’t have an opportunity to get an education.”
Parton the philanthropist has been busy ever since Parton the singer hit the big time. Much of her giving is done anonymously, but some of her projects include scholarships for high school students and a birthing unit for the local hospital. And while you may think of the Dollywood Amusement Park as a piece of country kitsch, it is also a reliable employer and economic engine in a high-poverty region.
But her crowning achievement may well be the Imagination Library.
The idea began simply enough. In 1995, she set out to send a free book every month to every child in Sevier County ages birth through five. In 2000, the program moved to expand across the country, and was quickly picked up by 27 affiliates in 11 states. In February of 2018, the Imagination Library presented its 100 millionth book to the Library of Congress.
The program manages the selection and mailing of the books, pays for all the overhead, and keeps track of the data base for the program which now sends books to 1.45 million children per month. The other end of the program is a local affiliate, which does the sign-up for children and pays a whopping $2.10 per book per child. According to David Dotson, CEO of the Dollywood Foundation which administers the Imagination Library, the biggest news for the library in recent years is the growth of whole-state and big city programs. DC has a district-wide program that serves 30,000 children. North Carolina now operates a statewide program, and Ohio will shortly announce that it has put money aside to do the same.
The books arrive at the house addressed to the child (as the child gets older, that is no small thing), and the range and variety is impressive (I know this because we are an Imagination Library home). Works range from a reprint edition of the original “Little Engine That Could” to works by well-known modern authors like Anna Dewdney. These are not some sort of cheap knock-off version; your child has the pleasure of holding a “real book” in her hands.
Last year the program added Ireland to its list of countries (US, UK, Canada and Australia are the others).
It’s not a flashy project, and it won’t ever win Parton the title of “disruptive innovator,” but she has managed to put books in the hands of millions of small children, no matter what their parents’ income may be. If you are interested in supporting this good work or in finding an affiliate near you, the website provides more information.
In 2006, Parton told an interviewer, “They call me the Book Lady. That’s what the little kids say when they get their books in the mail.” On the website, she writes, “Before he passed away, my Daddy told me the Imagination Library was probably the most important thing I had ever done.” It may not pull the kind of press usually given to the titans of technocratic philanthropy, nor will we ever be take a hard data measure of its impact, but the Imagination Library is a great way to make life just a little better for millions of the world’s littles.