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Ditching business to work for charity: Microsoft exec sets up Room to Read

Former Microsoft executive John Wood quit the world of big business back in 1999 to co-found the Room To Read charity, a global non-profit organisation focused on literacy and gender equality in education in Asia and Africa that has reached over eight million children. The organization has also established thousands of schools and libraries, distributed millions of books, and published over 700 local-language children’s books. EX caught up with John during a flying visit to Singapore.

First of all John, what are you doing here in Singapore?
Speaking at our annual Wine Gala, which has become one of the biggest and high energy charity events in Singapore. Over the last four years we’ve raised well over S$7million to help bring the lifelong gift of education to children across the developing world, and had fun while doing it.

How easy is it to do business over here in South East Asia?
When you’re running an NGO, I’m not sure that anything is really “easy”, as you have to convince people to part with some of their hard-earned money, to help children they may never meet. But thankfully, so many people here in Singapore realize that without education, none of us would be where we are today, so through Room to Read there is a great opportunity to pay it forward.

What inspired you to leave your role at Microsoft to launch Room to Read?
A headmaster in Nepal showed me his school library. It was completely devoid of books, and I asked why. “In Nepal, we are too poor to afford education. But until we have education, we will always be poor”. Once I thought about that, I realized that these kids, through no fault of their own, would remain one more generation that was uneducated and living in poverty. I vowed to help, and have never looked back.

How difficult was it to leave that comfort zone?
Pretty difficult, because in so many parts of the world people judge you by the prestige of your title, your position, your influence. I went from saying “I’m Director of Business Development for Microsoft’s Greater China region” to “I deliver books on the back of yaks in rural Himalayan villages”.

When did you launch?
The first library was opened in May 1999. I quit Microsoft shortly thereafter and got Room to Read officially up and running in January 2000.

What was the idea and motivation behind it?
That I had won the lottery of life, and been born in the right place, at the right time, to educated parents. This was all totally random and beyond my control, and yet I “won”. Too many kids don’t have that same good fortune, so my goal was to devote my life to helping them to also win the lottery of life, and to gain literacy, habit of reading, and an education from a young age.

How big an influence was Andrew Carnegie?
Carnegie’s model – building over 2,500 libraries in the 1880s and 1890’s, appealed to me greatly. It struck me as interesting that nobody had ever done for children across the developing world what Carnegie did for people in the US, Canada and the UK.  

Who came up with the brilliant phrase: “We run Room to Read with the heart of Mother Teresa and the scalability of Starbucks’.
That was me. The scalability part was really important, as we live in a world with over 770 million illiterate people. There are so many “micro” charities out there doing very small things. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we’re going to truly attack poverty in this lifetime, we need to think like business leaders. I’m proud of our local teams, as we have out-Carnegied Carnegie, and also out-Starbucked Starbucks.

How different is it working in the non-profit sector compared to the corporate world?
For many NGO’s, it’s really different, but for us it’s not as we speak the language of business.  We talk about scale, business planning, low overhead, ROI, and win-win corporate partnerships. We’re trying to merge the best of the philanthropic world with business best practices, so in reality my focus today is very much still the same business-like focus I brought every day that I worked at Microsoft and prior to that in banking.

Is there a massive difference in terms of fulfilment and satisfaction in what you now do for a living?
Oh yes, for sure. In my former positions, I felt that I was making rich people richer. Today, I know that over eight million children across the developing world can gain the lifelong gift of education because of Room to Read’s programs. I work harder than I worked at Microsoft, travel more, and make a heck of a lot less money. Yet I am happier than I’ve ever been.

How do you go from having no fundraising experience to raising $250m?
A lot of it has to do with recruiting fundraising volunteers in wealthy cities, from London to Hong Kong to New York to Singapore to Sydney. We now have over 12,000 people involved, running over 50 fundraising chapters. They act as our “feet on the street” in so many ways, and help to drive our awareness, fund-raising, and networks.

What qualities do you bring to the role?
Passion, energy, and a big vision. I’ve always believed that bold goals attract bold people, and that bold people attract other bold people. On the other hand, wimpy goals are going to attract risk-averse people who think small. I’m also not the least bit afraid to “ask for the order” when it comes to fundraising, which is not a trait most people have.

How have your corporate experiences helped you?
Lots, some of which I’ve touched on, but I also learned a lot about recruiting, building a global team, measuring everything that the team was doing, and holding everyone to high standards of performance. That is one reason so many people get involved in Room to Read. We’re not asking them to stuff envelopes, or accost people on the sidewalk with clipboards while asking for donations. We’re instead asking them to use their innate talents, skills and brainpower to build a high-performance global organization.

How have you used social media to build the business?
We’re big users of Twitter – between @johnwoodRTR and @RoomtoRead, we have over a million followers. We also work closely with our friends at Facebook, Google and other tech companies, and are now one of the five most followed NGO’s on social media. I hope many of your readers will sign up for our Twitter feeds.

How big can Room To Read become – how do you see it developing?
The sky is the limit. We were a start-up 13 years ago with no budget, no fundraising experience, and just a few employees. Today, we’re helping over eight million children in ten countries. But we view this simply as the down payment on the dream. We hope that the next decade will be even bigger and more impactful.

Any other ventures on the horizon?
No. Room to Read is what I do, now and in the future. Our goal is to increase the number of children benefitting from our programs to 10 million by the end of 2015. That will keep me, and our team, more than adequately busy.  J


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