February 17, 2013 7:29 pm

A bookworm’s quest to spread the word

John Wood’s tale of globetrotting philanthropy reveals the triumphs and pitfalls of building a non-profit from scratch

Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy, By John Wood (Viking, RRP£13.99, $27.95)

 

As a child, John Wood made a pact with the librarian in his home town of Athens, Pennsylvania. She would let him borrow more books each week than the rules dictated so long as he told no one.

Two decades later, still inspired by his passion for reading, he began repaying the illicit loans with interest after a Damascene moment chatting with a teacher in the Nepalese village of Kavresthali during a sabbatical from his senior sales job at Microsoft. The impoverished school library had little on the shelves beyond a few dog-eared Danielle Steel novels and an ageing Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia left by backpackers. He launched an appeal to friends for book donations that would transform his life as well as those of local people and soon others across Asia and Africa.

The power and effectiveness of his simple message led to the creation of a charity that rapidly expanded its remit and geographical spread. Since 1999, Room to Read has established nearly 15,000 libraries, built 1,500 schools, distributed 12m books, published more than 700 titles in local languages, supported 20,000 girls in education and benefited an estimated 8m children in 10 countries.

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Wood wrote about much of the early history of his ambitious project in his previous book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, which itself helped raise the profile of, and funding for, an organisation that now generates nearly $50m a year in donations – or “investments” as he prefers to say.

This latest publication brings the story up to date, describing his peripatetic existence fundraising and co-ordinating as he globetrots for the organisation. It is filled with stories of grateful teachers and pupils, local communities and staff, volunteers and donors around the world.

To its credit, the organisation scores highly in transparency and accountability, publishing its accounts online and commissioning regular evaluation reports – although one US charity rating body frowns on the governance practice by which Wood long held the positions of both co-chairman and paid chief executive.

Room to Read stands out for insisting on matched funding by communities to ensure maximum local support and sustainability; a reluctance to use expatriates or buy Jeeps for field-staff; and innovative approaches to growth, including the use of supporters’ air miles, hotel rooms and office space (including that of Pearson, owner of the Financial Times).

In one striking episode, he describes how he persuaded Cathay Pacific to allow him, donors and a vast number of books to hitch a ride for free on one of the airline’s newly ordered 777s, which would otherwise have travelled empty on its delivery flight from the factory in Seattle to Hong Kong.

As a literary work, Creating Room to Read falls slightly awkwardly between parallel narratives: that of Wood’s colourful descriptions as he travels to recipients around the world; and his more internally oriented reflections on building a successful non-profit organisation. His extraordinary enthusiasm, boldness and desire to expand by hiring top people – often with a corporate background – come through clearly. His legacy of libraries is one of which another role model – Andrew Carnegie – would no doubt have been proud, especially since Wood began with nothing like the same personal fortune.

There is less reflection on the difficulties of charity management, the lessons learnt and how applicable they are to others. He summarises his operational philosophy as that of Steve Ballmer, his mentor at Microsoft: GSD (“Get shit done”); and believes that business skills are the key to success.

There is also an unexplored irony: despite Wood’s background as a Microsoft sales executive, he chose to focus his second life on donating low-tech print-based books rather than finding ways to tap the digital revolution that (despite obvious infrastructure challenges) is now reaching even remote parts of Africa.

There is a final delicate question not addressed in the book, although, to the credit of Room to Read, it is described in the evaluation reports on its website. While its vision and creativity are powerful and the outputs impressive, the broader outcomes of its programmes are less clear-cut. It has recently begun to measure the impact on its beneficiaries by examining their retention rates, advancement between grades and transition to the next level of schooling. Yet there is no baseline against which to compare their successes; and between 2008 and 2011, the absolute scores for these three factors dropped slightly, albeit from a high level.

That is not to play down the very considerable achievements of Room to Read. But it does point to a sobering message: however impressive the power of global philanthropy, achieving broader social change can prove complex and elusive.

The writer is an FT correspondent

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