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CEO turns a page with Room to Read

Room-to-Reads-John-Wood
Room to Read's John Wood

One of the NGOs working to get books into kids’ hands worldwide is Room to Read, an NGO founded by John Wood, formerly of Microsoft, Stuart Alan Becker caught up with recently in Siem Reap.

A young-looking American with a passion for libraries and books – and the difference they can make in peoples’ lives says he knows of no other organization besides Room to Read that has opened 1,500 schools and 12,000 libraries in the last ten years.

That’s why he’s unapologetic about the millions in funding he helps raise.

“I was reading the ‘Art of Happiness’ by the Dalai Lama and one of his teachings is if you give something away you’ve become a happier person –  it gives you a sense of contentment and happiness, that’s so true,” Wood said.

In an effort to escape from the “founder problem” as he calls it, Wood gave up his CEO title three years ago and now serves as global ambassador, public speaker and media persona.

That’s why the Room to Read office is headquartered in New York City.

As one of the most successful and well-funded NGOs, having raised $40 million in 2011, Room to Read has an 11-member board of director, a management team and the slogan:  world change starts with educated children.

It started when Wood was working as a marketing director at Microsoft in 1998 and visited a rural school in Nepal.

When he found they had almost no books, Wood acquired some books and had them delivered on the backs of donkeys.

Nicholas Kristoff, writing about Wood in The New York Times, phrased it like this: “The local children were deliriously happy, and Wood said he felt such exhilaration that he quit Microsoft, left his live-in girlfriend (who pretty much thought he had gone insane), and founded Room to Read in 2000.”

Room to Read is headquartered in San Francisco but Wood stays mainly in New York between travels around the world raising funds and opening new libraries.

“I’m the number one ambassador, public speaker, media persona and New York is a good place to do all those things,” Wood said.

“No money equals no mission,” Wood said.  “I am proud to be a great fund raiser. Part of the reason we have opened 1,500 schools and 12,000 libraries is we have absolutely fantastic fund raising initiatives.”

He earned a degree in finance at the University of Colorado and later an MBA at Kellogg’s School of Management at Northwestern University.

“I grew up in a house with books and my father had grown up in poverty in Denver as one of seven children.  He always told us we got lucky. “

Wood first came to Cambodia in 1994, there were three or four hotels open, and tourism was just getting started.  He’s been happy to participate in Cambodia’s development since then.

“If we don’t educate kids, all the sins of the past are going to perpetuate:  the whole idea of quitting Microsoft was that one day there would be tens of thousands of villages with libraries – otherwise nothing was going to change.”

“I think if you look at all of human history, ever since Gutenberg, people who are educated do better in life. The most educated societies in Asia are also the richest: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong.”

“You look at Cambodia, Bangladesh and Burma – the less education you have in a society, the worse off its people will be,” he said.

Wood says libraries are so important because the only book a lot of kids have in the poorest parts of the world are text books, which Wood says don’t teach thinking.

“When you get a kid into a library, they can make their own choices, one kids loves animals, another loves non-fiction or geography. Let the kids know it is their choice and they can learn things on their own and widen their views of the world as the result of that library.”

Room to Read has people who live in Hong Kong, Singapore and Mumbai on their Asia Fund Raising Board who follow the progress.

Room to Read helps libraries get going with a “challenge grant” requiring local groups in any country to put in land, labor and small amounts of money.

“When the local people have co-invested in the projects – put in their own resources, so they feel a sense of ownership -- that acts as an anti-corruption device, and they don’t steal for themselves.  The community is going to police itself.  We cannot let corruption happen,” he said.

Speaking about aid in general, Wood says where they go wrong is in massive cash transfers.

“Where the aid world goes wrong is in these massive cash transfers,” Wood said. “We’re going in and giving the community the cement and the materials to build shelves, desks and books.  The community is going to be involved in the building they feel like it belongs to them.  They are now responsible for making sure it runs effectively.”

According to Wood, Room to Read opens new school every two days and six libraries a day.

“We got six million kids who now who have access to our schools and libraries and our goal is to have 10 million by 2015.”

Wood also likes having children’s books from local authors.

“We’re searching for the Dr. Seuss of Cambodia,” he said.

We’ve published titles by local authors and local artists, conducted workshops, and kids can relate to our books.”

Room to Read has published more than 550 titles in 20 languages.

They will have published 1,000 titles by 2013, all with original content.

Room to Read won the UNESCO’s Confucius Prize for the work.

“The Confucius Prize recognizes that this is a key part of the education supply chain that is missing.  If young kids don’t start out with books they can relate to, it is already a bumpy path to their education.”

In the Room to Read model, libraries have a 3-year period of support and a book classification system in place as well as training the teachers to run the library and get the kids in the habit of reading.

“Reading is fun, not punishment,” Wood said.

Once a library has run for three years, Room to Read lets go and it runs on its own.

“We never pay the librarian’s salary, so we ease the community into knowing they have to take responsibility for it,” he said.  “We’ll go back and see how things are going.”

The average Room to Read library has 1,000 to 2,000 books.

Room to Read also integrates libraries into schools.

“If a school will give us a room, we will kit that room out as a separate library.”

Seventy per cent of the books supplied by Room to Read are in the local language with 30 per cent in English.

“We work with big publishing companies to get bulk donations of books with companies like Scholastic, Penguin, Pearson, McGraw Hill and McMillan who all donate books.”

Thanks to Wood’s Microsoft connection, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation now funds Room to Read’s evaluation work.

The evaluations are posted on the Room to Read website at www.roomtoread.org.

Room to Read raises half its money outside the USA, with the biggest sources in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Holland and Switzerland.

“We get a lot of support from around the world,” Wood said.

Room to Read raised $40 million in 2011, has 500 full time employees with 90 percent of those in Room to Read’s educational program.

“We have over 10,000 volunteers in 57 cities.  People keep their day jobs, do this as a part-time hobby and they collectively raise a third of our budget.”

While the schools and libraries are “gender neutral”, Room to Read has a scholarship program for secondary school girls designed to get more of them to attend secondary school.

“For each year of education she gets nine percent extra income per year.  Mothers are also more likely to get their kids vaccinated,” he said.

Wood says he’s a feminist and that’s part of his motivation.

“Women and girls should not bet left behind. My grandmother my older sister and mother read to me. They were strong women in my life and made a difference.”

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