|name: John Wood|
organisation: Room to Read
country: USA, Nepal, Cambodia, India and Vietnam
type of activity: non-profit literacy building organisation
In this section, YXC has developed an imaginary interview with John Wood, founder and CEO of Room to Read, a dynamic, results-oriented international organisation that establishes schools and libraries in Asia. He started the organisation after witnessing the lack of schools and libraries during a three-week trek through the Nepalese Himalayas. He gave up his executive position with Microsoft in order to focus “the next chapter of my adult life” on helping children in the developing world to gain the lifelong gift of education. His passion is now to combine the lessons he learned from the business world with the compassion and service ethic found in the non-profit arena. Together with Erin Keown -Chief Operating Officer, he has assembled an enthusiastic and dedicated team of hundreds of international volunteers that manage all facets of operations. In addition, they have a talented team of staff in each partner country.
Since its inception as a non-profit entity in 2000, the NGO has impacted the lives of over 400,000 children by building 100 schools, establishing over 1,000 libraries, publishing 23 new local language children’s books, shipping over 440,000 books, establishing over 45 computer and language labs and funding over 850 long-term scholarships. Room to Read now also operates in Cambodia, India and Vietnam.
In January 2005, Room to Read raised $1 million for building educational infrastructure in tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka.
In 1999, then 35 and Microsoft's No. 2 in China, you came back after a first journey to Nepal and it seems your life completely changed… I went there with some 3,000 books to give to a school that could not afford any. The project was a joint venture between me and Dinesh Prasad Shrestha, a rural-aid worker in Kathmandu whom I had met earlier. On that occasion, we decided to repeat this initiative in a more organised way: I quit my job and started a new career. Microsoft didn't need me, the children of Nepal did. I loved working at Microsoft, but something in me absolutely snapped on that trip…
How could you make it so fast? I thought it would be easy: just open my card file and ask my friends and business associates to invest. Most of those said no. Friends thought I was crazy to leave Microsoft. And who invests in a start-up charity? Four years later I had expanded Room to Read from Nepal to include Vietnam, Cambodia and India. The charity has built more than 100 village schools. It has stocked some 1,000 libraries with almost half a million books - half in English and half in local languages. In towns with electricity it has built 45 computer labs and language labs. And it has raised enough money for scholarships to send more than 500 girls to school for ten years in countries where families who can't afford the fees for public schools usually send only boys.
Marc Andreessen, Netscape's founder and one of Room to Read's biggest donors, said you have brought to the charity world the best practices of the corporate world. What do you think? I’ve really had to deploy my powers of persuasion to show people what we’re able to accomplish - and accomplish by directing more than 95% of our funds right into our programs, by keeping administrative costs very low.
I have high expectations of our beneficiaries, but I encourage donors to maintain high expectations of my work. Our value proposition is simple: we present the problem, the solution, and a price tag - and track results. Donate $5,000, and you are guaranteed that a school will be built. Better still, the school will have a dedication plaque that bears your name or whatever name you choose. And you'll receive (via email) reports and digital photos that update you on construction, capture the dedication ceremony, and document how the children are doing. We believe that if somebody gives us money, he is owed progress reports. He deserves to know how his money is being spent.
What is your goal? To help educate 10 million kids in 20 countries. We are 2.5% of the way there… English is taught in most Asian schools, so books in English are valued as much as those in the native languages. Many of the villages we serve have illiteracy rates of 80%, and if that can be improved, it can lift up an entire generation. In Nepal, for example, the alternative to jobs in government, business or tourism, which usually require literacy, is to earn less than a dollar a day carrying a 150-pound load on your back as a porter.
And your last comment for us is... There are nearly 1 billion illiterate people in the world. My goal is to help 10 million children achieve literacy by 2010. We've helped 100,000 kids gain access to books so far. That is one one-hundredth of 1% of the illiterate people on this earth. So congratulations. Get your ass back to work!