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Conference Recap: John Wood On Leaving Microsoft to Change the World


November 7, 2013

In 1998, John Wood was working as the director of marketing for Microsoft and “dreamed of escaping.”

While visiting Nepal, Wood met with the headmaster at a local school and was shocked to see that the library was empty: the school couldn’t afford any books.

“Perhaps you will come back with books,” the headmaster said. According to Wood, it was “a humble statement that ultimately cost me a lot of money.”

As a self-described “action-oriented optimist” and “library nerd,” Wood drew on the inspiration of Andrew Carnegie, who used his fortune to establish more than 2,500 public libraries in the early 20th century.

But he also understood the value of a memorable story, so Wood set out to become “Carnegie with a yak.”

Wood quit his job and founded Room to Read in 2000, despite having no capital, employees, academic background or fundraising experience.

Today, Room to Read has opened 1,675 schools and 15,000 libraries across developing world. But it wasn’t always easy. During his keynote Oct. 29 at the PRSA 2013 International Conference, titled “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World,” Wood shared the six initial obstacles his organization faced:

Obstacle #1: Existing nonprofit models were mostly about “free stuff”

Wood explained that people often treat the developing world as merely “passive recipients” of first-world charity. However, Room to Read adopted the philosophy that “free is not valued.”

Emphasizing the power of ownership, Wood explained, “When local people invest in their own solution, it becomes sustainable.”

Therefore, Room to Read works with the local community in what Wood referred to as the “challenge grant model,” which is based on sweat equity: “If you want it, you have to help.”

Obstacle #2: Lack of focus on scale

Big problems demand big solutions. However, Wood told the audience that “bold goals attract bold people.”

To make a difference, you can’t accept limits. You need a “BHAG”: a big, hairy, audacious goal.

“We don’t want to be judged on intentions,” Wood said. “We want to be judged on one simple thing: results, results, results.”

Obstacle #3: Lack of local language children books

Wood realized that American books rewritten in the local language wouldn’t connect with kids in developing nations. They needed stories that reflect their experiences and culture. But there just wasn’t enough original content available.

So Wood went “searching for Seuss.”

Room to Read tapped local talent, offering local artists an incentive to write and illustrate relatable children’s books.

So far, the organization has produced 875 original titles in 25 languages, and anticipates more than 1,000 by the end of 2013. “We’re the biggest publisher you’ve never heard of,” Wood joked.

Obstacle #4: Lack of brand recognition

Wood embraced his marketing background to promote Room to Read’s message and get more people involved in the cause. “The charity needs to think more like the business world to create a message that resonates,” Wood said.  To that end, the nonprofit adopted by Ketchum for branding, marketing and social media.

An article in Fast Company called “John Wood Turns the Page” (December 2002) set off a media whirlwind that brought Room to Read widespread media attention, including columns in The New York Times by Nick Kristof.

“The more we could be out in the spotlight and use the power of PR and marketing, the better,” Wood said.

Immediately after appearing on Oprah, the overwhelming online traffic from her audience crashed all eight of Room to Read’s servers. They quickly recovered, and the book drive raised more than $3 million dollars. 

“Never underestimate the power of a good story to get people involved,” he said.

Obstacle #5: Overwhelming “demand” from customers

Room to Read started as “a total bootstrap.”  The organization had to improve their fundraising efforts in order to raise the capital they needed.

To reach potential donors, Wood worked to build a network of part-time volunteers, commenting that “if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.”

Chapters took off across the world:  there are currently 12,000 people involved across 57 cities, and they have raised more than $250 million dollars.

Wood emphasized the importance of working together to build bigger movements — even if that means giving up control. “Leaders have to invite others to come in,” he said.  “Delegate and get out of the way.”

Obstacle #6: Traditional inefficiency of the nonprofit sector

Room to Read waged a “war on overhead” to minimize waste and “strip costs out of the equation.”

They adopted a “no land rover policy” to cut out extraneous spending. Wood pointed out that buying one SUV would potentially cheat 300 girls out of an education.  So they relied on the local infrastructure instead (he wasn’t kidding about the yaks).

By tapping contacts from his network and sharing the organization’s message with potential corporate partners, Wood was able to secure donated resources, from free office space and frequent miles to an “all you can eat deal” on cement.

As a result of this frugal approach, Room to Read has earned the highest-possible rating from Charity Navigator, a recognition that less than 2 percent of their rated charities can claim.

Helping change the world

“If we can change the reality on the ground, the world is going to be a much more prosperous and peaceful place,” Wood said. “Every one of us has to do something.”

He told the audience that he learned six key lessons from his experience so far:

  1. Don’t be the leader of an organization, be one of many.
  2. What gets measured gets done.
  3. Bold goals attract bold people.
  4. Never be afraid to “ask for the order”: Go after what you need.
  5. You don’t have to be a billionaire or celebrity to change the world.
  6. The power of GSD: Or, “get [stuff] done.”

Kyra Auffermann



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