Tina Fey became an Emmy-winning writer for “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” after learning to love books as a little girl. “I was read to every night for sure,” she says. “My dad would work and come home, and that would be daddy-daughter time. I remember him reading me ‘A Christmas Carol’ when I was in the second grade. And my teachers in school being like, ‘You’re reading this?’ He was like, ‘You can understand this.’”
Not every child has that same access to books. That’s why Fey supports Reading Is Fundamental, the nation’s leading literacy nonprofit since 1966. The organization, which was founded by Margaret McNamara (the wife of former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara), has distributed 415 million books to more than 40 million children across the country and enlisted a million volunteers to bolster literacy rates.
In 2017, one million books were gifted to children who needed them, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. “There are 25 million children in America today who aren’t reading proficiently,” says Reading Is Fundamental president and CEO Alicia Levi. “That’s a problem we can solve.”
Reading Is Fundamental, or RIF, as it’s often called, operates by funneling money into local organizations.
“We invest in community literacy advocates,” Levi explains. “Sometimes they are schools. Sometimes they are parent groups. Those groups then take the final step to make those books available. In addition to that, we encourage those groups to create cultural literacy.”
As schools have embraced digital technology via computers and iPads in the classroom, Levi points to some troubling statistics. “If a child is texting, then they can be reading,” she says. But that’s not always the case. Recent studies suggest that 65% of children entering fourth grade aren’t proficient readers. By the time they graduate from high school, 63% of students don’t make the cut.“That’s a horrifying statistic in today’s day and age,” Levi says.
For 35 years, Reading Is Fundamental received millions of dollars in federal support. But in 2011, Congress cut all government spending to the nonprofit in a move to prioritize competition for funding. “As you can imagine, the loss of that funding severely affected communities across the country,” says Beth Meyer, the group’s chief marketing officer.
That means that the organization, which operates with about 25 employees, has had to rely on individuals and corporate sponsors such as Macy’s and Amazon. Last year the web goliath ran a two-week campaign with its consumers, asking them to chip in. That resulted in the sale of 11,400 books, which were donated to the charity. “It’s important that children have books of their own choice that they can call their own,” Levi says.