A World-Changing Investment

Only three days left in this season's Foolanthropy campaign! Visit www.foolanthropy.com to learn about five reader-nominated charities and make a donation.

You'd think having a high-profile, high-paying job at Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) would be all someone could want out of life. All the stock options, all the international travel, all the meetings with the likes of Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates. Who would leave a life like that?

John Wood did. He left his life as a Microsoft executive for a sack of books and a yak. And a whole lot more.

John Wood is the founder and CEO of Room to Read, an extremely well-run nonprofit that brings books, libraries, and computers to thousands of children in the developing world. It's also one of five organizations chosen for this year's Foolanthropy campaign.

Danielle Steele in Nepal
It all started when Wood was a "corporate warrior" for Microsoft in Asia. Taking some time off, he embarked on a trek through Nepal. Along the way, he met a regional school inspector, who gave Wood a tour of one of the schools. How many books did this school have? Just four: the Lonely Planet Guide to Mongolia and novels by James Joyce, Umberto Eco, and Danielle Steele. The books were so treasured they were kept under lock and key.

John Wood was astounded. The inspector said, "Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books."

That he did. Wood collected hundreds of books from friends and family, loaded them onto a yak, and returned to the school. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Educating the developing world
As he explains in his book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's Odyssey to Educate the World's Children, Wood quit his job and created Room to Read, which now operates in Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Laos, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. To date, the organization has established nearly 3,000 libraries stocked with more than one million books. Room to Read has also helped create 200 schools. And since two-thirds of the world's illiterate are women, Room to Read pays the education costs for 2,000 girls.

But this is no touchy-feely charity. Wood brings a high level of corporate efficiency and accountability to the organization.

"I think a charity should be run better than a business," says Wood. "We have 800 million potential customers lacking basic literacy. How can we measure our results? We look at the most quantitative: How many libraries are built? How many books put in the hands of kids? How many girls on scholarship? How many girls are passing and how many are finishing in the top quarter of their class?"

Want to see those results? They're updated quarterly on the Room to Read website.

"One of the great things about capitalism is that if companies aren't performing, they're run out of business," says Wood. "I think people should be responsible for their results."

Getting community buy-in
"The Third World is littered with projects -- there are a bunch of Western people with good intentions," says Wood. "But many of them say, 'Step aside, local people, we're here to build a hospital.' Then a month later, they disappear."

Room to Read operates on a different model. "Our preference is the community to approach us," Wood explains. "We don't want to go in and tell them what they need."

The community assists in the development of a project and must contribute in some form -- perhaps by providing the land, building materials, or labor for a new school.

The rest of the resources come from donations and partnerships. Room to Read has forged relationships with a broad array of corporations, including Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) , Accenture (NYSE: ACN  ) , ING (NYSE: ING  ) , Credit Suisse (NYSE: CS  ) , Boeing (NYSE: BA  ) , Reader's Digest (NYSE: RDA  ) , News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) Harper-Collins, and, of course, Microsoft.

Because the U.S. dollar still goes a long way in the developing world, a donation can make a huge difference. "Just $2,500 will fund 10 years of a girl's education -- a life changed forever," explains Wood. "Two thousand dollars will get a bilingual school library." Want to build a school? Just donate a bit more than $10,000, which can finance the building of a school -- library and plaque with your name included.

Room to read, but not much room to breathe
Leaving Microsoft hasn't made John Wood's life easier. "I work harder now, I work longer hours," he says. "But I'm much more fulfilled -- much happier. I enjoyed working at Microsoft, but I just love what I do now."

You can help Room to Read by visiting its Foolanthropy page and making a donation. But hurry -- the Foolanthropy campaign ends on Jan. 7.

Robert Brokamp is the editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter and the husband of a woman who grew up in a bookstore (her bedroom was the philosophy section).


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