A Conversation with John Wood

Q: In 1999, you left a lucrative executive career at Microsoft to start the nonprofit Room to Read. What inspired you to make this huge life change?
A: As a global marketing executive responsible for significant sectors of Microsoft’s international business, I was constantly traveling and lived abroad for long stretches of time; I loved my job but was burnt out. I took a three week vacation, the first in nine years, trekking through the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal. One morning, I met a man who was a resource director for several schools and he invited me along to visit a local Nepalese school. Once there I was shocked to see the students had no books, only a handful of old paperbacks left behind by travelers, and even these were kept under lock and key. After noticing my surprise the headmaster turned and uttered a sentence that would change my life forever, “Perhaps Sir, you will someday come back with books”. At that moment the seeds were planted for Room to Read. Initially I was inspired to organize a book drive, which resulted in me and my father hauling thousands of books up the mountains to the same school a year later, but it soon became something much more substantial. It became a personal mission to bring about sustainable change in these remote areas of the world.

Q: Since its creation just over a decade ago, Room to Read has opened over 15,000 libraries and over 1,600 schools and published more than 8 million books in over 25 native languages. How were you able to grow your organization so quickly and effectively?

A: We have a mission that resonates naturally and gives supporters the opportunity to change the world in a positive way. The fact that we’re focusing our work on children and developing programs that are sustainable and effective allows our investors to point to concrete outcomes. They can see our results, and they know that their support will directly affect the lives of children. We tell donors exactly how much it costs to build a school, publish a children’s book, establish a library or to support a year of a girls’ education. So, what you get when you make a donation to Room to Read is a very direct, very tangible result.

From the beginning, we started with some important basic business principles—that we would be efficient, accountable and results-driven. I strongly believe it’s necessary to take the best of the business world and combine it with the best of the NGO world—in fact, I tell our team that we want to run Room to Read with the compassion of Mother Teresa but with the focus and tenacity of a blue-chip company.

Q: Room to Read is rated as one of the most efficient large charities in North America. What creative ways have you found to keep your costs low, and your effectiveness high?

A: Room to Read was set up with a clear business model based on sustainability and efficiency. We keep our overhead incredibly low by watching our expenses and using in-kind donations of airline miles, office space, services and materials whenever possible. For example, Credit Suisse provides office space in London, Hong Kong, Sydney and Tokyo. The Financial Times has provided us office space in New York. Bankers from Barclays Capital and Goldman Sachs have given me more than 5 million frequent flier miles so that I can travel around the world at no cost.

We take great pride in our financial efficiency, our accountability to donors, and our transparency. Because we believe the best way for projects and programs to succeed is to have them run locally, we maintain offices in each of our countries to do the work in the field. We also ask that the communities themselves invest in the projects, whether through labor, supplies or services – that approach keeps our expenses lower, but also ensures a local buy-in which makes the libraries and schools a real part of the community.

Our chapter network, the enlistment of 10,000 volunteers in 53 cities who are committed to fundraising and raising awareness about Room to Read, also helps ensure we use every dollar contributed as efficiently as possible. This network of passionate individuals raises approximately 1/3 of our annual budget each year.

Q: How does teaching a child to read positively affect his or her community at large? What exponential benefits are gained from providing literacy to a younger generation?

A: Our mission statement says it all: World Change Starts with Educated Children®. Currently there are 775 million illiterate people in the world, 2/3 of which are women. Education is the most effective way to turn the tide on that statistic and eliminate poverty. Educated women are more likely to educate their own children, stay healthier, have smaller families and earn higher wages. An educated, literate child will mean he or she can earn more money, which benefits the family, the surrounding community, and the global society. Education opens countless doors and results in the next generation of leaders.

Q: In 2008, the United States entered into the deepest recession since the great depression. How did you manage to continue raising money for Room to Read– more than doubling its annual budget—when so many people were cutting back on charitable giving?

A: In the non-profit sector, a collapsing economy can be an organization’s demise. I’m so proud to say that Room to Read did not flinch in the face of a very scary fundraising climate and we continued to have robust revenue growth year over year. We met our goals of reaching more deserving children even when the harsh reality of cutting back on programs and expansion if budget targets were not met was looming. Our success is due to pure tenacity and strength of spirit from our global team. Rather than be defeated, I increased my international travel and committed myself to cultivating new supporters around the world. With this renewed passion for our mission, we proved that when the going gets tough, Room to Read gets going!

Q: Your original goal with Room to Read was to build libraries, but now the mission has expanded to include building schools, funding scholarships for girls and publishing books for children who had next to none in their native language. How did the mission evolve to include these new programs?

A: Very early on in the start-up years of Room to Read, we recognized a need to approach our mission holistically. We believe that in order to provide access to a quality education to children in the developing world, there are both “hardware” and “software” needs inclusive of not just the educational infrastructure such as libraries and schools but also trained and qualified librarians and educators, reading and writing instruction lesson plans, culturally relevant early reader books and life skills support to guide young girls through the obstacles to education that occur outside of the classroom.

We focus on the two areas where we believe Room to Read can have the greatest impact: literacy and gender equality in education. Our programs seek to help primary school children become lifelong, independent readers and to support adolescent girls in successfully transitioning to and completing secondary school with the life skills necessary to make informed decisions thereafter. We achieve these objectives through five core programs:

  • School Libraries - We establish libraries and fill them with local language books published by Room to Read, donated English books, games, furniture, etc. - everything needed to establish a child friendly learning environment.
  • Book Publishing - We source new content from local citizens and authors and publish high-quality children's books in the local language. These books are then distributed throughout our network of schools and libraries.
  • School Construction - We partner with local communities to build schools so that children can have a safe learning environment.
  • Reading and Writing Instruction - By developing supplementary teaching materials and conducting in-service teacher training, we seek to supplement the gaps that exist in the existing reading and writing curriculum of the countries across Asia and Africa where we work.
  • Girls' Education - We provide material and academic support to girls in nine countries and conduct life skills workshops so that each girl we work with graduates secondary school with the knowledge and skills necessary to make informed life decisions.

Q: When you founded Room to Read, how did you apply your experience in the corporate world to the nonprofit sector and do things differently than other charities?

A: I took a lot of the principles I learned at Microsoft into the nonprofit sector— being results-driven, thinking big, keeping overhead low and scaling with quality. I decided early on that one way I could differentiate Room to Read was by frequently updating our results and I have taught our teams all over the world that we are accountable for outcomes. I also took the practice from Microsoft of being a data-driven organization. It’s not enough to know your numbers on a daily basis - you have to know how they compared to last year. Also, we have never referred to Room to Read as a “charity”, from day one it was referred to as an organization. We don’t give a hand-out, we give a hand-up and we only work with motivated communities.

Q: What advice would you give to someone setting out to build a nonprofit from scratch?

A: The world has a need for great thinkers and doers. Social entrepreneurship is a path that attracts business minded people with a passion to affect change. I have always referred to myself as an action-oriented optimist. I know that there are many others out there like me and the world could use more of us on the front lines. Being a social entrepreneur delivers an unparalleled sense of purpose and the return on investments is exponential. Dare to dream big dreams and act on them.

Q: Many schools in Asia and Africa are single-sex, but it was important to you that all of Room to Read’s schools be co-ed.

A: One of our key initiatives is advocating gender equality in education. Two-thirds of students who aren’t in school in the developing world are girls. We established our Girl’s Education program in Nepal in 2001 and we now have over 20,000 girls enrolled across nine countries. We primarily focus on girls’ transition to secondary school because that is where the biggest gap in gender equality takes place. We also felt it was important for young boys to be in the same school as girls so they can see for themselves the significant contributions educated women make to society. This is a key ingredient for sustainable change that will be perpetuated generation after generation.

Q: You feel that it's important for parents who are donors to Room to Read to bring their children overseas to see how their investment is paying off and meet the young students who are benefitting. Do you find that these visits inspire the younger generation to take action? In what ways do young people get involved with Room to Read?

A: Room to Read has a youth movement called Students Helping Students that is specifically built to empower students with a desire to positively change the world. Students in more than 700 schools from over 30 countries around the globe are taking action to raise funds and awareness for our work. Ranging in age from grade to graduate school, these passionate students have raised more than US$1.75 M by participating in read-a-thons, hosting book swaps, camping out in campus libraries or tutoring early readers.

Students Helping Students seeks to broaden the youth audience’s knowledge of important social issues, such as illiteracy and gender inequality in education, while providing them with the necessary tools to become the leaders of social change for generations to come. Learn more at www.roomtoread.org/students

Room to Read does host family treks for our donors and their children so that they can visit our work together and witness the transformative effects of their support. This first-hand experience truly galvanizes the commitment of donors of all ages and recruits more young entrepreneurs to stand up for global literacy and girls’ rights to attend school.

Q: One of the ways Room to Read differs from other NGOs is that you require participation and funding from the local community in order to build a school or library. Why is this so integral to Room to Read's success?

A: Our Challenge Grant model requires community members to co-invest in school construction projects by providing assets such as materials, land or labor. This sets the stage for long-term sustainability and gives the community a sense of project ownership as they become stakeholders in the project’s success. The Challenge Grant also allows Room to Read revenue to go further. If the community finds resources to cover half of the costs of a project, this means Room to Read can be the catalyst of twice as many schools and libraries.

We constantly hear from residents of the communities where we have projects how much they appreciate being treated with dignity and being asked to help develop and build the schools and libraries they so desperately need. A mother in India once told us “You do not treat us as passive spectators. We are active and proud participants who go to sleep at night knowing we’ve been part of creating a better future for our children.” We believe that by requiring the community to pitch in, we honor their dignity.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge along the way?

A: I am more optimistic than ever, but also more impatient. Optimistic because, while we started with nothing and had to boot strap the organization into being, we have now reached over 7.5 million children in 10 countries across the developing world;; but impatient because there are hundreds of millions of children who need us and communities that have never heard of Room to Read. The fact that hundreds of millions of children don’t have books at their disposal is a fact that belongs in the trash bin of human history. That can change, that must change, and we will be one of the major players who do indeed change that reality. I now know that we are playing for higher stakes than ever. And that every day we lose is a day we don’t get back.

Q: Since Room to Read was founded, social media has become an integral marketing tool for businesses. Room to Read is viewed as a leader in this field – for example, you and the organization have nearly a million followers on Twitter. How have you built and evolved your social media strategy?

A: Social media has allowed us to deepen engagement with current supporters by making it easier to share stories of impact and organizational “wins” in real-time, but it’s also helped us to connect with like-minded individuals around the world that may have never heard of Room to Read before. Our consistent engagement with followers via social networks has made us more relatable than ever as an organization.

A perfect example of this was in 2010 while I was visiting our work in Zambia. I recorded a short video interview with one of our girls’ education scholars, Mulenga, in which she discussed her dream of one day going to university. I posted it to our YouTube page and sent a link via Twitter to my 300,000+ followers. Within hours, there was a flood of inspired action from donors who were moved by Mulenga’s story, including a man from Ireland who offered to provide funding for her university education. One video, one Tweet, one more life changed. That is the power of social media, if done right.

The conversation hosted by Room to Read and by myself on Twitter is always active. We post throughout the day to reach followers and supporters around the world. Since I’m constantly traveling, my posts span multiple time zones and geographies – we informally call it the news feed from my perpetual global road trip. It allows me reach a lot of people who care about Room to Read and who want to be “in on the journey.”

Q: Room to Read has received some unusual donations over the years. Can you describe one or two of these and how you were able to make use of them?

A: In Creating Room to Read, I recount how in 2007 we were offered usage of a trans-Pacific flight for a new Boeing 777 that was being delivered to Cathay Pacific Airlines in Hong Kong. When Martin Cubbon, a long-time Room to Read supporter and Group Finance Director for Swire Pacific (Cathay’s parent company), shared that the 777- 330ER jet had the largest cargo hold of any plane in the sky and offered to have us make use of the delivery flight, our team immediately sprung into action. Four months later, with the generous support of Scholastic, the Boeing 777 flew to Hong Kong—it’s massive cargo hold filled with 400,000 children’s books for students in Cambodia and the passenger seats filled with beaming Room to Read supporters and my parents, all ready to celebrate this momentous occasion and the opening of our 5,000th library.

Q: What is next for Room to Read? Are new locations or programs in the works?

A: In 2012 we launched operations in Tanzania and we have plans to expand into Indonesia in 2013. We are also putting resources into our Reading & Writing Instruction program, which supports teachers to supplement gaps that exist in the standard reading and writing curriculum—providing resources, in-service teacher training and classroom enhancements. We focus on helping first and second grade children “crack the code”, meaning that they can read and write familiar words and basic sentences with full comprehension, and express themselves clearly. Those skills provide the foundation for success as they continue on in school. We are also looking forward to celebrating the opening of our 15,000 library, the publication of our 1,000th children’s book title and inclusion of over 20,000 girls in our Girls Education program next year.
This holiday season, give the gift of literacy with Room to Read and double your impact. Make a gift for any amount and help change the future for children across Asia and Africa. All gifts will be matched through Dec 31 thanks to a group of generous donors (up to $2.5 million.) www.roomtoread.org/holiday

John J. Wood is the founder and board co–chair of Room to Read. An organization that believes World Change Starts with Educated Children®, Room to Read seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in developing countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. At age 35, John left an executive career track at Microsoft to form Room to Read. The business acumen honed there, combined with his passion to change the world, makes John a unique and inspiring speaker with universal appeal.

John’s award-winning memoir, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children (Harper Collins, 2006), tells how he raised over $200 million from a “standing start” to develop one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in history. The book was described by Publishers’ Weekly in a starred review as “an infectiously inspiring read.” Translated into 20 languages, it is popular with entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and educators alike, and was selected by Amazon.com as one of the Top Ten Business Narratives of 2006 and voted a Top Ten Nonfiction title of 2006 by Hudson Booksellers. The book was also featured during John’s appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show and the resulting “Oprah’s Book Drive” with Room to Read raised over $3 million from viewers.
John’s latest book is entitled Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy (Viking Penguin, 2013). This sequel tells the story of how the organization has successfully tackled next steps—including “scaling beyond my wildest dreams” while maintaining integrity and raising money in a collapsing economy. Kirkus Reviews calls it “an absorbing personal account of a remarkable achievement”.
John has been a three-time speaker at the Clinton Global Initiative and a five-time winner of Fast Company Magazine’s Social Capitalist Award. He has been honored by Time Magazine’s “Asian Heroes” Award, selected as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum and is a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. He was selected by Barron’s as one of the “25 Best Givers” in 2009 and 2010, ranking 11th and 9th on the list, respectively.
John holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Colorado, and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the University of San Francisco. He also serves on the advisory board of the Clinton Global Initiative and serves as an Adjunct Professor focused on social entrepreneurship at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Policy.


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