'Creating Room to Read': Doing a world of good

Using brains and business know-how, John Wood is building up literacyin war-scarred, destitute spots. (But don't call it a charity!)

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You can't stop paying taxes every time the government does something boneheaded. But people can and do stop donating to charities that betray their trust, sometimes ending their voluntary giving forever. In "Creating Room to Read," John Wood, author of "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World," has produced a detailed, compelling and deeply satisfying account of MBA entrepreneurs with missionary zeal who bring literacy to the world's poorest children. It will restore your faith in giving back.


By John Wood
Viking ($27.95).

In 1999 Mr. Wood visits a primary school in Nepal while on vacation, and is proudly shown its library: two tattered Danielle Steel paperbacks, locked up for safe-keeping. This prompts the Microsoft marketing exec to return months later with donated children's books.

When the whole village turns out to show its amazed gratitude, the 35-year-old Mr. Wood experiences an epiphany. He will quit his job and emulate his hero Andrew Carnegie by building libraries in Asia and Africa's most war-scarred, destitute spots.

True, he has no background in academia or nonprofits. It turns out this will be why he succeeds.

• • •

Lessons from his Microsoft days shape every facet of the fledgling organization, Room to Read. Go big or go home. Hire people at least as smart as your current staff. Recruit for passion, business skills and ability to GSD (Get Stuff Done). Trust, but verify. (Can you say "surprise audit" in Setswana?)

And don't call it a charity! They offer a hand up, not a handout. "The only thing we want to give ... is an opportunity," Mr. Wood says.

That explains the Challenge-Grant. Room to Read helps only people who want to be helped and are willing to prove it. Think about that. Local teams, usually native-born, identify communities motivated to receive a school, library or native-language books. The village must provide teachers, and either cash, materials or labor. Since the local government will own the operation within three to five years, upfront buy-in is key.

When average income is $1 to $2 a day, towns can get creative. A Himalayan village collects 100 pounds of rice from 200 families' annual harvest, yielding 10 tons to sell. Room to Read matches the profit 2-to-1. In Sri Lanka, children operate a monthly farmer's market to sell donated produce. Fifth-graders count the take, and all the children learn about making money selling products people want. In Zambia, villagers donate two pigs to be raised on unused land. Enough piglets are sold to earn 30 scholarships for girls.

Pigs are good, but to Get Stuff Done on a global scale takes a continuous flow of big money. Room to Read calls its donors "investors" in search of a long-term rate of return. Such talk appeals strongly to the capitalists. They also love the penny-saved, penny-earned frugality. Disgusted by NGOs that squander money on new vehicles, Mr. Wood maintains a "No Range Rover" policy. He will, however, accept offers of frequent flier miles, hotel rooms and office space.

Such thrift means Room to Read spends more than 82 percent of collected funds on programs rather than overhead. It has a top "four star" rating from independent Charity Navigator, something only 3 percent of charities can claim.

As a writer, Mr. Wood's prose is serviceable rather than vivid; too many people "opine" when they ought to just "say." But this is like carping at an Olympic swimmer's bad haircut -- it doesn't matter.

• • •

When he talks about the children, plain facts convey almost more than this reader could bear. There's Chris, a black South African boy who acquires his only books by raiding the trash bins of rich white people. From these he teaches himself math, geography ... and how to drive a car. In Nepal, 10-year-old Sunita loves studying, except when her father beats her and sets fire to her books. Since he only does this when he's drunk, her mother and grandmother get the neighbors to sound an alert when father leaves the bar, so Sunita can escape to a classmate's house -- with her precious homework.

Room to Read operates in cultures where contempt for women keeps girls poor, and much worse. In northern Ethiopia near Sudan, men often acquire a bride by kidnapping a girl and raping her, several times. She's left at risk of both HIV and pregnancy. The "groom" tells the family that since their daughter is now spoiled, he will take her off their hands. The 11- or 12-year-old girl is thus attached for life to her rapist, to whom the odds predict she'll bear six children. Her education is done.

In Afghanistan, girls walking to school are sprayed in the face by Taliban motorcyclists with squirt guns of sulfuric acid; they do not approve of educating girls. Similar horrors occur in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

Mr. Wood theorizes, plausibly, that uneducated men, and men educated only alongside other males, such as in madrasas, cannot be expected to resist centuries of taught prejudice. (All Room to Read's schools are co-ed.) Only education can change that. This is what keeps him flying around raising money in Singapore, Dubai, Toronto, London, Sydney, Los Angeles. The 6 million children already helped are a fraction of the world's 790 million illiterate people (two-thirds of them women). There is no time to waste.

The night he reads about the acid attack, his optimism turns grim. But as he's done after other setbacks -- a major donor who reneged, employees threatened with violence in Africa -- he doubles down. Room to Read will show people they do not need to accept the forces of darkness. "Our team is larger, and our team is smarter," he writes. "We will win."

He's won a lot already. Since 2000, Room to Read's 600-strong employees have built 13,000 libraries in 10 countries; published 7 million books in 25 native languages, created by local writers and artists; built 1,500 schools; funded scholarships for 17,000 girls to finish secondary school; and set 6 million children on the road to literacy. Its next goal is characteristically bold: to reach 10 million children by 2015.

May the larger, smarter, more compassionate team win. I know which side will get my investment.

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Nan Willard Cappo (nancappo.com) is a novelist and MBA from Squirrel Hill who has not changed the world but admires people who have. See roomtoread.org.


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