How to make a friend in Uganda. business consultant, NGO worker, former Peace Corps volunteer, activist: searching for sustainable solutions to eradicate extreme poverty

July 11, 2009

Reflections on Wood

When I heard John Wood speak in spring 2008 at the Global Development Conference, I was inspired. He spoke of a trek through Nepal where he stumbled across a school that had no books but the few castoffs from travelers. The books were locked in a cabinet, too precious for the children to touch. John Wood pledged to return with age-appropriate books and did so – after a substantial book drive- the following year. He soon left his job and his girlfriend to start Room to Read, which has now established 5,100 libraries in the developing world.
The story seemed a bit too simple so I decided to read John Wood’s book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. Inside I found answers to my questions on what led to Wood’s decision to leave the corporate world, how he funded his fledgling organization, partnerships created, lessons applied from the private sector, and how he plans to break global poverty through global, universal education.

Lessons from Microsoft
Much of the book talks about the lessons that Wood learned from his work at Microsoft. He talks about this drive and focus. Somehow I doubt that these qualities were developed solely at Microsoft. However, the one idea that I believe differentiate Wood’s efforts from others was his maniacal focus on measurable results. On the signature of each email and on the front page of the website he includes an up-to-date report on the progress of the organization – number of libraries and schools opened, scholarships received, books delivered. Wood says that this gives donors the ability to instantly see the growth and effectiveness of the organization. During fundraising speeches he breaks down what contributions will buy – $8,000 for a school, $2,500 for a library, $250 for a one-year scholarship. The focus is internal as well as internal. By pushing these numbers to donors, employees know to focus on those activities that will drive the required results. This focus on measured results is different than what I have experienced from other social sector organizations. Many focus on the problem and not the solution. This leaves both donors and volunteers weary. By using the business principle of a results-driven organization, results are easily measured and motivation is easy.

Breaking poverty
Almost a decade into his mission, Wood is seeing the results of his efforts. Students who would never have moved past grade 2 are now continuing on to college where they will learn skills allowing them to contribute to the growth of their communities in a meaningful way. Books are unlocking the human potential that no other resource could. In a world full of struggle, poverty, and hardship one man with one idea has made a big difference. Books won’t solve all problems and there is much more work to do. However, if other entrepreneurs step up to attack social ills with the same ferocity and focus, change can easily be made. Wood gives hope to change in ways that

Just Go!
Wood writes on page 238: “Sometimes it’s really important to move with all deliberate speed. If there is something out there that you want to do to make the world a better place, don’t focus on the obstacles. Don’t ask for permission. Just dive in. Don’t let the naysayers get you down.” A couple of weeks ago an academic and international business consultant listened to my dreams, suggested a number of resources, and, then, made one suggestion: just buy an airplane ticket and go to the country of your choice. By diving right in, he seemed to be suggesting that I might be able to find where I fit.
Attending conferences, making donations, and writing reflection papers sometimes just seems like an exercise in academic masturbation. All the focus is on the student and not the developing world. By taking the necessary steps to act, the focus changes. I have seen this shift in my own life as I have worked in soup kitchens, mentored youth, and rebuilt homes. The physical act of helping has transformed my perspective more than the best speech by the biggest celebrity or politician.

Additional Materials:

Watch this video from FRONTLINE to see Wood in action.
Buy the book Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood

July 6, 2009

How one Banana Saved the World

I have wrestled for the last few years with the idea of how my small, individual acts of compassion, gratitude, and generosity might – with the added strength of others – make our world a bit more just and livable. I have been particularly interested in how my actions might affect the one billion people who currently live on less than $1 a day. While in business school I studied these concepts under the tutelage of Professors William Tiga Tita, Dennis Shaughnessy, and Christopher Robertson. I also read a lot of books. Then, 10 months ago I got together with some like-minded individuals to figure out how the concepts fit into our particular faith construct. We wrestled with these issues together for 12 weeks. To start to put some ideas into practice, in January I joined the Fair Trade Boston campaign. More about that later. First, let me tell you about how one extraordinary banana taught me a valuable lesson.

I recently moved to Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is a particularly metropolitan section of town, with a unique collection of shops ranging from Ten Thousand Villages to Supreme Liquors to Dunkin’ Donuts . One of the grocery stores in the neighborhood is a community-owned shop called Harvest. I tend to do most of my shopping there. On a particular shopping trip a week or two ago, I stopped by the produce section and noticed that there were Fair Trade certified bananas for sale. I picked up a bunch since I’ve learned that the vendor, Oke, pays a premium to ensure that farmers in Central America are paid a fair price. As a bonus, I noted that the bananas are organically produced so that neither the banana nor the farmer is sprayed with toxic chemicals. After checking out, I strutted down Mass Avenue, pleased that I had done the right thing. I was in such good spirits that I threw a few coins in the cup of a man sitting on the street and struck up a conversation about the weather. (It’s a much more important subject for someone who does not have shelter.) As the conversation wound down I realized that I was carrying a bag of groceries and the man I was speaking with might be hungry. I asked if he liked bananas. He said yes. I pulled one off the bunch and handed it to him. He expressed an enormous amount of gratitude. Apparently he had been thinking about purchasing a banana all day – you know for the potassium.

That experience brought something into light. It showed me just how easy it is to recognize a problem and take action. Through one simple purchase and subsequent gift of a banana I was able to make a difference in the lives of people in communities separated by vast distances who ironically experience some of the same problems. No longer can I hide behind the excuse that my actions do not make a difference. I invite you to join me and share your story. Together our actions can be even more consequential.

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