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The Impact of Room To Read: John Wood Interview

Sometimes a request for a single book can literally spark the creation of thousands of libraries and schools around the world. Such is the case with Room to Read. In approximately 6 years, Room to Read has created a network of over 3,000 schools and libraries in rural communties in Asia and Africa. The award-winning organization is considered one of the most effective and fastest growing non-profits in this day and age.

DesignShare was honored to connect with John Wood, founder and CEO of Room to Read and author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children. Wood has been likened to a “21st century Andrew Carnegie” while “building a public library infrastructure to help the developing world break the cycle of poverty through the lifelong gift of education.”

We were interested in both further spreading the Room to Read story, as well as offering the DesignShare audience a unique opportunity to help develop schools and libraries in communities throughout the developing world.


DesignShare: Describe the actual school that you visited in Nepal that inspired you to leave your life as a successful Microsoft executive while developing an international not-for-profit organization started with donated books stored in your father’s garage.


I went to Nepal on a trek and visited a local school. I asked to see the library and was brought to an empty room with a sign above the door that said, “Library”. There were no books. The headmaster said, “Perhaps, Sir, you will some day return with books”, and I made a vow to help. At that moment, the seeds were planted for Room to Read.

From there, I wrote to everyone in my address book an email asking for help. I encouraged people to send new and used children’s books to my parent’s house (I was living abroad at the time). Over 3,000 books arrived and my dad and I returned to Nepal a few months later to help establish 10 libraries.

DesignShare: You use a Soren Kierkegaard quotation to explain the moment you began to realize that it was possible to make a difference by creating even a single school library. Please share that quotation and explain how it has continued to inform the development of Room to Read over the years.


The quote is, “There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming”.

I felt this way when I was opening those first schools in Nepal and saw how many students were going to have the opportunity to read and learn. Since those early days in Nepal Room to Read has grown and expanded at a rapid rate as we have become a global organization. I think that our growth has stemmed from our pursuit to understand what we are capable of doing and becoming.

DesignShare: How many schools and libraries has Room to Read helped to establish? Approximately how many children have been directly impacted by these projects?


We currently operate in seven countries and to date have opened over 3,300 bi-lingual libraries with more than 2 million books. We support over 2,300 girls with long-term scholarships and have established more than 220 schools.

By our estimates we have affected the lives of over 1.1 million children through our programs and we are excited because every week these numbers go up!

DesignShare: How many schools and libraries were built before you realized that you had the momentum to make a significant impact on the world?


I am not sure that I will ever be certain that my impact has been significant enough. We’ve reached over a million students thus far, but that is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider that there are nearly 800 million people in the world today lacking basic literacy.

DesignShare: Describe the typical school that you help create. Likewise, describe the typical library that Room to Read helps to develop.


We have a Challenge Grant program with both our schools and libraries. That means that we partner with communities and they provide a portion of the materials, funds, labor or land. We have found that by using this process, we work in communities that are truly invested in giving their children the lifelong gift of education.

Our school room program works with communities to construct four- to eight-room buildings for primary and secondary schools that currently have an unsafe structure or overcrowded classrooms. In some cases, we assist in completing a school construction project that has been delayed or cancelled; we also identify communities that do not have any schools but need one.

As for our library program, the majority of our libraries we establish are created in partnership with a school or community within an existing room. When there is not an extra room for a library in a school, our local teams are very creative. We have built some single room buildings to house a library, established libraries in community centers and have mobile carts that act as libraries. Thanks to innovative thinking from our local teams, we are able to overcome common obstacles and help establish libraries for students who are eager to read.

DesignShare: On page 113 of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, you talk about the community and donor combining efforts to build a school. Even though the “amounts donated by each were quite different,” you said that was inconsequential. Furthermore, you said that the school in question was built in less than a year using the combined efforts and the community felt tremendous “ownership”. Can you tell us about that experience? What are the larger lessons learned seeing such investment connections take place?


That was a wonderful experience for me. I was lucky enough to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony at school in Nepal where 183 families in the community had contributed funds towards the school’s construction. Across an ocean, a donor in California had also made a very generous contribution. Combining these forces we were able to build a school.

At Room to Read, our Challenge Grant model is one of the most important components of our work. The model is all about the communities co-investing with us. We don’t give the community every single thing they need to build a school. We will buy them the bricks and mortar, and the community will donate land. The community will donate labor. The community will pick up the shovels and dig the foundation. If the community is not willing to do that labor and co-invest, we will not work with that community. We don’t want to make this school or library a free gift. We want to challenge them to do their part.

What’s most incredible is that these communities, almost all of them, respond immediately and are eager to prove that they’ll work. They’re not afraid of hard work. They want education for their kids and they will do anything they can to make sure that their community gets that school. We find that by having the community so involved in the process results in their feeling ownership of the project- which they should. It is their school or library and their children are the students.

DesignShare: What has your experience at one of the world’s largest technology companies taught you about how Room to Read can help millions of children around the world become empowered one book at a time? Do you incorporate any design strategies to make these spaces kid-friendly?


My experience at Microsoft taught me that you need to make early investments in order to create long-term value. So we invest heavily in librarian training, because in most of the developing world people have not grown up with a library, so training is necessary.

We make sure that we are creating a child-friendly environment – this means a comfortable floor, desks, chairs, brightly-colored walls, sufficient lighting, ventilation, open shelves, and the books at a child’s eye level. It’s not just about books; it’s about creating an environment that make books and reading a fun activity that children constantly look forward to.

DesignShare: In a recent NYTimes interview, you stated the desire to open up schools and libraries at the rate of Starbucks. The interviewer asked if such scale change is possible. At what point did you realize that it was in fact conceivable to do for literacy what Starbucks has done for coffee?


Starbucks is actually a corporate supporter of Room to Read, and I love coffee, so this comparison with them is made out of respect. My theory is that businesses have learned to grow quickly, but charities have not. And this is a shame, because the world needs many more libraries, schools, orphanages to look after kids who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, etc.

If Starbucks can open 30 or 40 new coffee shops every week, I see no reason why we can’t open just as many school libraries. This year, we will open 18 per week, on average, and by next year that number will be closer to 30.

DesignShare: If someone came to you and said, “I want to build a library,” what would your response to them be? How could they accomplish their goal using the Room to Read methodologies, network, funding practices, and strategies?


My first response would be “Great!”.

At Room to Read we are always excited to hear from people who are interested in working with us to give children the lifelong gift of education. We have a couple of different ways that a donor could go about funding a library. For only $2,000, we are able to work with a community to build a Reading Room. That is, we establish a library within an existing room in a school. Each library serves hundreds of students annually and includes as many as 300-1,000 local language and English language books. We also we work with communities that do not have enough space to dedicate a room to be used as a library.

$8,000 funds the construction of a stand-alone library building in the community along with books, furniture, games, posters, puzzles, librarian training, and three years of support from Room to Read. We actually have a description of all the projects one can adopt available at this link.

DesignShare: Do your donors or volunteers stay involved in the individual schools they help to fund/create?


When our donors fund a school, we try to keep them as informed as possible throughout the process.

The sponsors receive an Application Report which describes the community in need, reasons for support, and details of the challenge grant; a Progress Report with updates on construction; and a Completion Report with a summary and photos of the completed school, including a photo of the dedication plaque that adorns the school. If the sponsors are interested in seeing the school, our local teams are always happy to host a site visit where they can see the school firsthand.

DesignShare: I read an interview once where you were asked about the choice of using books in English and building schools where English is the primary language taught. You did a wonderful job of explaining this apparent ‘bias’ – can you explain this for us?


My point is that many times people in the West get caught up in this arbitrary distinction about whether kids should learn “their own language” or English. And I say “Why not both?”

In this increasingly connected global world we live in, I can’t imagine that any parent would not want their child to speak as many languages as possible. The countries that Room to Read works in all teach English as a second language, as part of the official curriculum, so all of our libraries have books in the native language, plus English.

DesignShare: While books clearly focus on literacy, one could argue in this day and age of rapid computing technology and virtual learning program that books are not the ideal medium to teach literacy, nor school buildings the best way to facilitate learning. What do you say to this given the communities/nations you support? Will there be changes – in your opinion – in the decade or so to come? Will Room to Read spend equal resources on software, computers, virtual programs, or other ways of facilitating literacy, schooling, training, etc.?


The day that the majority of American parents decide that (a) their children should not attend an actual physical school with a trained teacher; and (b) that their children should not read books is the day that I will believe these questions to be relevant.

I can not imagine a world without schools or books, and I think that anyone who would tell you that right now, in the year 2006, kids are better off without books or schools is doing a disservice to their kids.

Yes, in the future we’ll invest more in technology, but the reality is that until kids gain basic literacy, a technology solution is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse

DesignShare: In your experience as a business leader and nonprofit leader, what is the difference between donating funds to a large organization trying to eradicate illiteracy vs. helping to build a single school or library? What percentage of donor’s funds go to the actual creation of a library or school?


I don’t believe in a distinction of large vs. small. There are some great large organizations, and there are some small ones that are not getting much done. In my mind, the only question is: “If I donate $X, what can you do with the money? What results can you show me?”.

That’s why, on the Room to Read website , we list out exactly what we can do with directed donations – for example, $250 per year is enough to fund a girl’s scholarship and give her the opportunity to attend school when she otherwise would not.

Those are the numbers I am interested in.

DesignShare: Name the countries you are currently working in and what countries you are considering supporting in the future? Will the US ever see a Room to Read school or library? Why or why not?


We currently work in Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and just started operation in South Africa. Ethiopia and Zambia are the next two countries we are planning to expand into in Africa and will begin work in Latin America in 2008. We also plan to continue growing into more Asian countries.

Right now, we are focusing on running our programs in the developing world, so we do not have plans to do work in the US. However, I never say never!

DesignShare: Looking well into the future, when will you know that enough schools and libraries will have been fully or partially developed through Room to Read’s efforts? When will you see a ‘tipping point’ of success that will begin to demonstrate a true ROI in terms of altering global literacy rates? Is it possible for Room to Read to get there?


We still have a lot of work to do, that can not be denied. However, I think that we are on the right path towards making a significant contribution to higher literacy rates in many of these countries.

We are actually in the process of implementing a new monitoring and evaluation program whereby we will better understand what our own strengths and weaknesses are so that as we move forward and into more countries we are able to partner with communities in the best and most effective manner.

DesignShare: Explain the financial commitment it takes to build a school in countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka.


While prices change slightly every year, in 2006 a school in Nepal cost $11,000 and Sri Lanka was $18,000. Most is this money goes to buy bricks and mortar. Room to Read also provides the blueprint. The community donates land and labor. [Note: prices/donations will change over time but this helps to give a sense of scale for individual projects]

DesignShare: At the end of your book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, you offer the following Goethe quotation: “If all the musicians in the world played this piece simultaneously, the planet would go off its axis.” You offered this as a mantra for education. If you could offer a specific call-to-arms to school design experts around the world, what would your challenge be to this group? How can school architects get involved in Room to Read?


My challenge would be simple: Get together with a group of friends and raise funds to support a project.

We have hundreds of communities asking us for help in building schools, and thousands of communities that want us to establish a library. Funding is the missing piece. I hate to sound mercenary, but one of the best things we can do here in the Western world is tap into the vast wealth that surrounds us.

DesignShare: Given your success in growing Room to Read from a single blast email sent to family, friends, and colleagues requesting donated books, it would be easy for someone to imagine you have a ‘golden pipeline’ built for donations that lead to construction projects. In reality, what are the new challenges looming on the horizon for you as a leader and the organization as a whole?


The biggest challenge I face is trying to keep up with the rate at which Room to Read is growing and balancing that with a busy travel schedule. It is definitely a good problem to have, but I have very little down time and my email inbox and voicemail are always overflowing!

DesignShare: In theory, if you were to leave your day-to-day leadership responsibilities with Room to Read and could only help design/build one school or library anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?


Sorry, but I can not answer this question, as my goal is to work with thousands, and eventually tens of thousands, of communities.

Maybe when I am 70 years old I’ll move to a rural village in Nepal and run a local library, but until then, and that is 28 years away, it’s full steam ahead!


Get involved:

To learn more about John and Room to Read’s impact on the world of education, contact John at or simply choose to “Get Involved” today.

Biographical information:

John Wood, Founder and CEO, launched Room to Read after a trek through Nepal. He visited several schools and was amazed by the warmth and enthusiasm of the students and teachers, but also saddened by the shocking lack of resources. Driven to help, John quit his senior position with Microsoft and built a global team to work with rural villages to build sustainable solutions to their educational challenges.

Founding Room to Read, John wove proven corporate business practices with his inspiring vision to provide educational access to 10 million children in the developing world. His novel approach to non-profit management called for:

a) scalable, measured sustainable results;
b) low-overhead, allowing maximum investment in educational infrastructure;
c) challenge grants fostering community ownership and sustainability; and
d) strong local staff and partnerships creating culturally relevant programs.

November 13th, 2006

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