Seth Godin directed our attention this morning to an organization called Room to Read, a nonprofit group that builds schools and libraries for children in some of the world’s poorest rural communities.
Here are some stats from their site. In the past seven years, they’ve built 287 schools, established more than 3,700 libraries, published 146 new local-language children’s book titles (with a more than 1.3 million total print run), provided 1.4 million English-language titles, funded 3,448 long-term scholarships for girls, and established 136 computer and learning labs.
Total number of children provided with access to books so far? 1.3 million. And they’re not even thinking about slowing down.
Their founder is a guy named John Wood, who learned how to move fast and aggressively (and to think huge) as a senior marketing and biz dev exec for Microsoft.
He’s shown an impressive immunity to being overwhelmed. His response to the challenge of lifting 10 million children out of illiteracy, in a 2002 interview with Fast Company, was "Why is that not possible? Microsoft doubled every year in its early days. Cisco more than doubled every year. I worked in a lot of different organizations at Microsoft that doubled year to year, and none of us thought it was incredible."
There are a lot of reasons Room to Read has been successful. One that interested me is that Wood and the organization he runs aren’t at all shy about asking for large sums of money. One aspect of their model essentially "sells" a school to a donor for $5,000. Woods has the experience to know that for his audience, $5,000 is a puny amount of money balanced against the satisfaction of seeing a school built and hundreds of children’s lives changed forever. He knows his market, he knows what drives them, and he knows that price is pretty elastic.
In simple marketing terms, Wood has the right message and the right offer. He has a strong, benefits-oriented tag line ("World change starts with educated children.") He has a good hook (impoverished local communities co-fund the schools, providing exceptional local accountability and buy-in) that speaks to the language and concerns of his customers. His value proposition–a package that presents the problem, the solution, the price tag, and the tracking that guarantees accountability–is sound.
His campaign has all the ingredients of any intelligently-run marketing campaign. His product just happens to be saving the world.
Traditional nonprofits are often run by folks who think "ethical marketing" is a contradiction in terms. They’re extremely smart about real life stuff like helping people in need, but often not so smart about the business and marketing that could help them accomplish that. Their staff and volunteers have a strong tendency to hate and fear the rich, and it’s never a good idea to communicate with anyone you hate and fear. And career nonprofit types are sufficiently accustomed to living on ramen and good luck that they have a hard time saying, "The best part is, it only costs $5,000."
Those organizations are still doing incredible things and alleviating suffering, and I mean them no ill will or disrespect. But sooner rather than later, their work will be overshadowed by this new model. And since the new model has the potential to work incredibly well, I celebrate that.
It’s time to quit making excuses and save the world, already
It’s easy to lose sight of it in the depressing information clutter after 9/11, but we actually have a shot at ending extreme poverty on this abused little planet. Not just in my two-year-old’s lifetime, but in my lifetime.
The technology of making stuff has gotten so good that we can make enough stuff for everyone (if we figure out the energy thing, which we will). New tools and new business models let us think on a global scale and act accordingly. A fractured status quo provides a lot of air and light for revolutionary ideas. Massive action is tricky to take in any context, and a lot of excuses have always been made about third-world inefficiencies, but the new players are looking at factors–cheap labor, social cohesion, powerful aspirations–that can make third-world projects workable on surprising scale.
My challenge to the bright, wired oddballs who read this blog is to get out there and find a way to help out. Together we and our bright, wired oddball kin are smart and obsessed enough to do this thing.
In the words of John Wood back in 2002,"We’ve helped 100,000 kids gain access to books so far. That is one one-hundredth of 1% of the illiterate people on this earth. So congratulations. Get your ass back to work."
An End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs
Fast Company’s 2002 interview with John Wood
How evil is Bill Gates?
Room to Read’s Web site
We are not powerless
The WILD Foundation and the Umzi Wethu project