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

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