In The News
In Search of 'Karmic Returns'
By Lara Wozniak
Issue cover-dated November 06, 2003
LIFE AS A FULL-TIME volunteer isn't easy, especially if you're running your charity like a corporation. Unless, that is, you have a plan. And former Microsoft marketing director John Wood has ambitious plans.
As founder of Room to Read, a charity dedicated to improving education in South and Southeast Asia, his goal is to found 25,000 free libraries in the region, as he puts it, "before I die."
It's no small task, but he says that is part of the allure. If he establishes 25,000 libraries in places where roughly 400-500 children have access to each of them, he can help provide educational tools to about 10 million children.
Those nice, fat, round numbers are a good sales pitch to multinationals, which are headed by people who like to think big themselves. Since starting up in 2000, Room to Read has so far given more than 300,000 books to the over 700 libraries that it has established. It has also set up 63 schools and 20 computer and language labs in Vietnam, Nepal, India and Cambodia.
Thinking of starting your own philanthropy? The first step, as Wood puts it, is getting "big money fast." You have to hit upon an idea that corporate chiefs can relate to--and education is one such idea. It's a bond that connects even corporate rivals. One of Wood's "top-tier contributors" donating both money and time (as a member of the charity's advisory board) is Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen.
You wouldn't think a Netscape boss would be a good friend of an ex-Microsoft employee. "But we both grew up in small towns with public libraries," says Wood, acknowledging that the access to books was vital to their intellectual growth. "And we have talked about how libraries don't exist in large parts of developing countries." As he puts it, "It's hard to be against this issue."
Once you pick a big idea, and you decide to go for big money fast, you need to have more than just big-numbered goals, such as educating thousands of people, as your sales pitch. You need to provide multiple options for investment. "We don't have a one-stop solution," says Wood. "We have multiple solutions because different communities need different things."
To keep costs down and navigate what can be complex local political and social issues, Wood suggests working with communities. Room to Read partners with local people to build schools, or simply adds to established libraries, language labs and centres. And it tries to tailor its efforts to suit the existing infrastructure. For example, a computer lab would make little sense in a rural community in the Himalayas with sporadic or no electricity.
To sell the idea, he says, establish "very transparent price points" that very clearly demonstrate what people are getting for their money. (Wood's corporate-speak includes referring to donors as investors who earn a "karmic return"). Another key is keeping your costs down. Wood says that less than 10% of all donations has gone towards overhead costs. Even though he's the chief executive, he's an unpaid volunteer living off his savings.
Wood was in Hong Kong in early October to woo new investors at a fund-raiser at the ritzy China Club, as well as to make a presentation to a multinational investment bank. His pitch: US$10,000 will build 10 libraries in India. At US$1,000 per library, that money buys 400-500 books, covers set-up costs and librarian training and also leaves a bit of money for follow-up checks to make sure all is running smoothly. Investors can put plaques on the school walls and expect to see photographs of their investments. As he puts it to the executives, "It's cheaper than endowing a building at, say, Stanford."