Room to Read Founder Speaks at NYU Reynolds Speaker Series

17 Oct

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For my social entrepreneur feature installment, I was fortunate enough to snag a seat for the NYU Reynolds Program, “Social Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century,” speaker series and listened to John Wood, founder of Room to Read.

In 2000, Wood left a successful position at Microsoft to begin Room to Read, a non-profit organization providing books to children in developing countries.

The inspiration for Room to Read came when Wood was on a trip to Nepal and visited a rural village. Wood was taken aback by the lack of resources available to students and teachers who were genuinely excited to learn. During the trip, he made the commitment to bring back 1,000 books on his next visit.

With the help from his parents, Wood managed to deliver 3,000 books on eight donkeys back to the rural village. Upon delivery, a teacher told Wood the day the books arrived was the biggest day in the village’s history.

As Wood explained during his presentation, the teacher went on praise Wood for doing so much for the village but disappointed the village couldn’t do more for him.

In actuality, the village provided a sign and a vision. He wanted to end the idea that your destiny is not tied to your demographic.

Since its beginning, Room to Read has grown to quite an extraordinary non-profit organization (NPO). Today, the NPO has a $40 million dollar budget and services nine developing countries. With the budget, Room to Read provides the delivery of books, publishes books in the native language, and builds schools and libraries. Besides working on education as a whole, Room to Read really strives at providing education and success to girls—a disadvantaged gender in many countries.

Since the launch of Room to Read, 1,443 schools have been built, 12,000 libraries, 585 books published, and 9.4 million distributed. According to Wood, last year alone, Room to Read built approximately 200 schools and  2,000 libraries.

One aspect of Room to Read I find instrumental is the non-profit doesn’t actually participate in the labor when building the schools or libraries. One of Room to Read’s philosophy is “we cannot help you, unless you can help yourself.” I think a local village or government must really want education and is willing to work for it.

Part of what makes Room to Read a success can be attributed to Wood using a business model in a NPO setting. Some of his recommendations are highlighted below.

  1. Make the non-profit like a business model and run it like a business.
  2. “What gets measure, gets done.” Have goals where results can be recorded.
  3. Refuse to call people donors, they are investors. People want to see results and where their money is being used
  4. Transparency. Room to Read has always provided all financial information, audits, and evaluations on their website. Wood believes it has helped land grants Room to Read would otherwise not have received. After the Three Cups of Tea scandal, transparency is a necessity for all NPOs
  5. With growth, get a board. Wood suggests a board where people not only are experts in their field but also care about success and the investors. Don’t have a “cupcake board,” where the NPO can walk all over it.

I believe the lessons Wood provides are imperative to anyone thinking of starting a non-profit organization. There is approximately 1.5 million NPOs competing for dollars in the U.S., and the more organized a non-profit is the better chance they will have receiving grants and “investments.”

Wood does not want to stop until “born at the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong parents” becomes a part of human history. With approximately 300 million children waking up today and not going to school, it seems Wood has his work cut out for him.

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