John Wood and Room to Read

From Knowledge@Wharton:

Wood devotes much of his book to explaining how he has modeled Room to Read on key features of Microsoft’s corporate culture. Noting that most nonprofits lack a hardline approach to managing costs and leveraging outcomes, Wood offers Room to Read as an example of how a well-run NGO should raise money, market its work and maximize results.

He is especially intent on data-driven accountability. For Wood, a successful nonprofit must answer to donors, who deserve to know where their money goes. He is careful to publicize Room to Read’s results continuously: Even his email signature file documents how many schools have been built, how many libraries have been established, how many books have been donated, and how many girls have received long-term scholarships to allow them to stay in school.

Moreover, for Wood, accountability doesn’t just satisfy existing donors — it creates new ones. An iconoclast when it comes to development, Wood doesn’t bother with direct mail campaigns or other standard trappings of non-profit fundraising. Instead, he relies on the human touch, travelling to fundraising parties organized by regional volunteers and convincing prospects, through an irresistable combination of personal charisma and a compelling business model, that their money will go places if they give it to him. This approach works with both individual donors — he once raised $150,000 in less than two minutes at a fundraising party when donors began matching one another’s gifts — and with foundations. One of Room to Read’s most generous and consistent funders is the Draper Richards Foundation, an offshoot of a firm run by renowned venture capitalists Bill Draper and Robin Richards Donohoe. Impressed by how Wood’s strong business sense had informed his non-profit mission, DRF finances Room to the Read to the tune of six figures a year.

Wood’s insight is simple, but transformative: Corporate savvy is not opposed to humanitarian aims, but may be used to assist them. Just because a charitable organization does not seek to make a profit, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t bring in as much money as it can, and manage that money well. To do any less is to shortchange the organization’s mission. There is also a crucial correlative here for Wood: While donors deserve to know where their money goes, the organization should not accept money from sources that could try to dictate organization policy. For that reason, Wood told The New York Times, "We don’t seek government funding here in the U.S. We don’t want to get into a fight with the U.S. government over whether we are allowed to teach kids about condoms or AIDS."

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