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Combating poverty through the power of education

Combating poverty through the power of education

At a time when many social enterprises are scaling back because of the global recession, one non-governmental organisation is doing just the opposite.
John Wood
“Right now, we’re opening five libraries a day on average, 35 libraries a week – 2,200 libraries this year would be our prediction,” says John Wood, founder and executive chairman of Room to Read, an organisation that builds schools and libraries in developing nations.

“We don’t want to scale back at Room to Read; there’s a lot of need out there. There are 300 million kids who woke up this morning and didn’t have a school to go to. There are 800 million people in the world who are illiterate and two-thirds of those are girls and women which is a problem that pays itself forward in perpetuity – because if you don’t educate the women, you don’t educate the next generation. So Room to Read has growth built into our DNA, because everyday you lose with a kid is a day you don’t get back,” he told INSEAD Knowledge during a recent visit to Singapore.

It is precisely Wood’s drive and ambition that have catapulted Room to Read in nine short years from a little known NGO, to one with an enviable list of high-profile corporate sponsors. “We’ve performed at a more high level than we actually predicted – 765 schools, 7,000 libraries, three million children served in less than 10 years. As a result of that, our donations are continuing, as a matter of fact, we are growing during this recession.”

Today, Room to Read has a large footprint spanning nine countries in Asia and Africa. It first started operating in Nepal in 2000, the place where Wood, who was trekking in the Himalayas was first inspired to rethink his senior position at Microsoft, after he was struck by just how difficult life was for Nepalese children. Even their collection of only 20 books for 450 children at the school – essentially backpacker castoffs – had to be kept under lock and key because there were so few of them.

Children, he says, are very capable of having their brains developed at a young age, so that should give people the impetus to reach out to more of them. “If you don’t reach these kids today, something else is going to reach them, and it may not necessarily be a positive thing like education.”

With the expansion of its management team earlier this year, Wood is showing that he clearly has no intention of slowing down. “For me charity is not a Monday through Friday 9-to-5 job. To me, doing what I do is 7/24/365, and it’s not a cliché; it’s something that I live every day. We look at how many kids can we reach, how many kids have we not reached.”

“So for me now today, I work longer than I ever worked at Microsoft, travel more than I ever travelled, have more people reporting to me than I ever had reporting to me – but I’m happy. I may make a lot less money but I’m happier. I wake up every day and I cannot wait to get started,” he says.

While his passion is palpable and may have inspired many to give, it is not the only reason for Room to Read’s success. Wood attributes other factors such as involvement at the local community level.

“One of the secret sauces for Room to Read is to incubate 41 chapters around the world, including here in Singapore. They’re volunteer-driven, self-motivated, self-directed and collectively raise about US$6-7 million a year,” he says.

Room to Read depends on its chapter leaders and members to help achieve their annual fundraising goals and represent Room to Read. Chapters are comprised of groups of individuals who have made a long-term volunteer commitment to promoting Room to Read within their networks and communities.

Room to Read also uses its Challenge Grant Model as another way to galvanise the community towards greater ownership and sustainability, and this is done through co-investments. Villages often raise a significant portion of the overall expenditure in the form of dedicated space, labour, materials and/or small amounts of cash.

“My motivation is that education is a hand up, not a handout. It’s not something you do to somebody, it’s something you do for them; you give them an opportunity. I don’t believe in the model of just dropping off a bunch of stuff and giving (these) as a free gift to local people because if you do that, you don’t have skin in the game; they don’t feel ownership and the project is not sustainable.”

Wood urges the world’s wealthy to give to more worthy causes, because he believes not enough is being done.

“I tell anybody who’s made it in life, who’s rich – their job’s not done yet. I think the example of Bill and Melinda Gates, of Warren Buffet proves that. It’s not enough to make it, you have to deploy it. Making it is half the game; deploying it is the second half, and to quote Andrew Carnegie: ‘the man who dies rich, dies disgraced.’”

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