Its methods: “Room to Read is what venture capitalists call a ‘pure play,’” says John Wood, the organization’s founder. “We do one thing—education for the poorest of the poor—and we do it well.” The organization focuses on scaling its work and keeps overhead low. In particular, it takes an entrepreneurial approach to crowdsourcing. “We were on this trend early, but instead of concentrating efforts online, we built on-the-ground networks. We now have more than 50 fund-raising chapters worldwide that are staffed by professionals who volunteer their time to fund-raise for the organization,” he says.
Its impact: Room to Read has established 16,000 libraries and constructed 1,800 schools. It has published 1,029 original children’s books and distributed more than14 million copies. It has also used tutoring and mentoring to prepare girls to thrive through secondary school. To date, 27,000 young women have participated in this program. Of these, 96 percent have graduated from secondary school and 73 percent have moved on to higher education.
How the Satter Foundation has helped: The foundation was an early supporter of Room to Read and Muneer was co-chairman of the board for four years. Wood says that Muneer’s support extends to offering crucial advice and organization-defining guidance. “As we were expanding into our first African country, we discovered two staff members had stolen some funding. We fired them, but I wondered if I should tell our investors. Many people said no, but Muneer told me my decision would be a test of what kind of organization Room to Read was going to be. So I called our major donors, which gained the organization respect among important stakeholders.”
Muneer’s advice also helped when Wood was deciding whether to give up his role as CEO in favor of becoming chairman and driving fund-raising. “He pointed out that I was the only person who could tell my specific story, but we could find someone else to fill the CEO position.” Muneer has also been generous with his introductions to other significant donors, which Wood says magnifies his impact.
“What’s key about the Satter Foundation’s support is that it provides unrestricted, large donations early in the year. This allows us to have some flexibility with where we deploy the money, and to have the security of knowing we’ll have funds throughout the year,” says Wood, who points to this approach as a model for other large donors. The foundation has given $3.1 million since 2004, and Wood estimates that it has helped educate 80,000 children, setting them on a sturdy path to success.
What’s next for Room to Read: Room to Read is developing new ways to quickly scale its success beyond the 10 countries in which it currently works. In addition, it aspires to reach its 10 millionth child by the end of 2015. To achieve this goal, it has launched Destination Literacy—a $20 million, 20-month initiative—to support its literacy and girls’ education work. It also seeks to expand its girls’ education program to 34,000 participants, helping these students become fluent readers by the end of second grade.