ESTEEM Site Visit: Better World Books

Author: Victoria Zellerhoff

This week we visited Better World Books headquarters which is located just a few miles away from Notre Dame. This visit is an ESTEEM tradition because the Program's director, David Murphy, served as the President and CEO until 2011 and was a key factor in the company’s successful launch.

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Now you might have heard of Better World Books before, maybe you bought a textbook through them or a “for fun” book, but what you probably didn’t know is that they are a for profit social enterprise. At first this juxtaposition seems somewhat contradictory, how can you be for profit but also be a social enterprise? It is a unique business model that uses capitalism to contribute to social change. Better World Books accomplishes this through its mission; the company strives to promote literacy and education whenever possible. Each year they donate millions of books and money towards literacy and education programs such as Books for Africa, The National Center for Families Learning and libraries across the country. Since the company was founded in 2002, over 21 million books and 23 million dollars have been donated to non-profit partners.

But besides being a book company that contributes back to society, they are really a logistics company.  They go through over 500,000 books per week and must be able to meet Amazon Prime’s hard deadlines to ensure 2 day shipping. To do this they are constantly looking for ways to become more efficient.

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Our entire class had the opportunity to see their headquarters, including a tour of the warehouse. It was amazing to see so many books and even more astonishing to think of how dynamic of a place it was. One of the coolest rooms we saw is called the A.R.C.; it houses all the expensive, historically important books that are donated to the company. Inside we got to see a range of books from old religious books written in Latin to Thomas Edison’s patent lawyer’s records. All these highly valued books are sold at auctions; the highest they have ever sold a book for is $20,000 which is amazing considering they get all their books from donations!

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Overall, it was great to learn about and see a successful scalable business that is socially impactful despite being only 14 years old. Companies like Better World Books are true embodiments of Notre Dame’s mission to foster academic excellence, professional effectiveness and personal accountability in a context that strives to be faithful to the ideals of community, human development and individual integrity.