In The News
Former Tech Exec Gives Third World 'Room to Read'
San Francisco Business Times, December 27, 2004
John Wood may have left his career at Microsoft to start a nonprofit, but at Room to Read, he's seeing the kind of growth figures once associated with the tech boom.
In five years, he has leveraged early investments made by venture capitalists into 1,200 libraries, 100 schools, 45 language and computer labs, 850 long-term scholarships for girls and 23 commissioned local-language children's books. For two straight years he has nearly doubled his cash and in-kind revenue, growing from a US$50,000 to nearly US$5 million-a-year organization.
Wood frequently says that he wants to be the Andrew Carnegie of the developing world. Carnegie built 1,750 libraries in the United States. At a rate of 12 a week, Room to Read will build that many in Asia by April 2005, albeit mainly on a far smaller scale.
"I don't know if we've been lucky or skillful, but blue chip business people and companies really support us," said Wood, Room to Read's founder and executive director.
Silicon Valley has been an early adopter of the young San Francisco nonprofit that began as Books for Nepal in 1999. Its supporters read like a who's who of the valley: Bill Draper, Marc Andreessen, Don Valentine, Jeff Skoll.
"If you put a hotshot entrepreneur in front of a venture capitalist, he turns on like a lightbulb," said William Draper, whose foundation chose Room to Read as its second fellow with US$300,000 unrestricted money over three years.
Don Valentine of Sequoia Capital seed funded 200 schools, and recently committed a further three years to Room to Read. And this year Ebay founder Jeff Skoll's foundation made a large unrestricted, capacity-building grant.
Room to Read "has exceeded our expectations in growth," said Jenny Stein, executive director of the Draper Richards Foundation and a board member. "In three years, our US$100,000 investments turned into millions."
Early success set the stage for Room to Read to court bigger suitors.
Last month, Accenture became Room to Read's largest corporate funder with a US$200,000 grant. (A San Francisco employee made the introduction.) Accenture's corporate giving program, established with funds from its 2001 IPO, supports high-impact global giving.
Accenture's US$200,000 grant will launch 50 libraries to serve 20,000 children in India and will fund 50 girls' scholarships. It will establish four language and three computer labs to serve 3,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian children. It will also launch the first Hindi-language children's book publishing program.
"We think a lot of the work we do is in making high performance organizations, and we found a good fit here," said Vernon Ellis, international chairman and corporate citizenship council chairman at Accenture. "Room to Read already is very efficient, high energy and ambitious. What they will find as they get bigger is all the pain barriers. ... Small organizations always have growing pains, and the more far-flung they are, the more difficult they are to manage."
Helping the organization graduate from startup phase to mature global player appeals to Accenture as much as the fact that US$50,000 can build 25 libraries (just don't think white columns or stone lions out front).
It's no happy accident that Wood has attracted businesses and the business-minded since Wood spent most of the '90s as a Microsoft executive. On a Nepalese trek in 1998, Wood visited a school without books. An email solicitation to friends and family led to an impromptu 3,000-volume book drive, and a new mission.
But his business background is stitched through Room to Read's fabric. Wood is results-oriented and publishes those. Keeping overhead low is next to godliness, and just behind that is an integrated marketing pitch.
Wood has created a model where the Asian communities he helps must approach Room to Read and co-invest up to 50 percent of the cost of the library or school. "If they don't believe enough to invest with us, it's not worth it," Wood said, even if the village is so poor it can only provide unskilled labor. "The tragedy of aid is making people depend on projects they don't need."
For now, Room to Read has only vague plans to expand beyond Asia. It will happen, and Ethiopia is a likely site, but strengthening the accomplishments of 2004 must come first. There's that grant from Accenture, the new publishing initiative and plans to open operations in Laos. And then there's the challenge of not becoming a victim of one's own success.
Room to Read's got the business community rooting for it. Predicted Draper, "It will be a very known organization."
Sarah Duxbury covers philanthropy for the San Francisco Business Times.
© 2004 American City Business Journals Inc.