Then you’re literate and fortunate. And it is good to remember just how fortunate we are.
John Wood is an unusual man who did more than remember – he did something about it. An MBA and successful Microsoft executive, he left the company after a chance encounter while on a hiking holiday in the Himalayas. Wood met a Nepalese headmaster, who showed him his school’s barren library. Wood was an avid reader as a child and a strong believer in libraries. Wood decided to help out. From those first efforts he eventually started a non-profit, Room to Read, that has since co-founded more than 12,000 libraries and 1,400 schools. The organization is making a massive impact improving literacy and gender equity around the globe.
In Creating Room To Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle For Global Literacy, Wood describes that journey. The non-profit is run as a lean organization: no money, no mission. the commitment to mission is clear and a driver in what the organization does, who it hires and how it operates. Data and evidence determines decisions (most of the time) and Wood often channels his former boss, Steve Balmer, in a focus on continuous improvement. Room To Read operates with sound management principles. The non-profit offers a hand up, not direct charity. All efforts are co-sponsored with local investment. Accountability is extremely high. After a local unit head in South Africa was found to have misused funds, Wood personally apologized to donors. He does not think of it as a charity but rather as a means of investment.
Wood rightly characterizes his organization’s mission as a battle, particularly when it comes to gender. He is rightly proud of Room to Read’s Girls Education Program, which helps girls make it through secondary school. In some parts of the world and in some cultures, educated women are a direct threat.
I read the book, joined the organization, and made a donation. It was that simple. Room to Read is doing extraordinarily important work providing a skill basic to human development. How can educators not support it? One read and I am an enthusiastic supporter.
Wood’s values, which are woven through the Room to Read, have great relevance to higher education. In fact, they are the recipe for success: focus on mission, control costs, make decisions from evidence and data, measure results, seek continuous improvement, hire mission-motivated people, work hard, and be accountable. If we and our institutions in academia follow these principles, we – and more importantly, our students – will be very successful.