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Wood's eye for detail proves charitable

By Ian Grayson

John Wood is shown in 2003 distributing books in Nepal.


(CNN) -- Digging out some small change or buying a raffle ticket is the extent of most people's charity support. But for John Wood it's building 197 schools and more than 2,500 libraries -- and he's only just getting started.

Working in some of the most disadvantaged countries on Earth, the former technology industry executive is helping local children attain basic literacy skills. Through donations of books and the building of educational facilities, he's providing access to information.

Wood, through his charitable organization Room to Read, is working with communities in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, India and Cambodia. More than 875,000 children have already been helped.

The inspiration for Wood's endeavors struck at a time when many successful business people begin considering options for their future -- at the peak of their careers.

Working as a senior executive in software giant Microsoft, he was responsible for the company's business development operations in the burgeoning Chinese market.

At age 34 and facing a rosy future in a rapidly developing industry, Wood took an interesting step -- he quit.

Determined to find the "second act" of his adult life, Wood began with a trekking holiday through Nepal. Then, just two days into an 18-day walk, he found it.

Talking to a local teacher, he was struck by the lack of books available for school children. Struggling to learn English and something of the world around them, many had no access to the information they needed. Wood was immediately spurred into action.

The first step was to organize shipment from the United States of some 3,000 books donated by friends and family. But realizing this was a drop in the ocean, he set about a bigger dream.

Wood recalls that many of his former colleagues could not fathom why he had given away a lucrative career to embark on what they saw as an impossible quest.

"In fact, I stopped telling people exactly what I'd be doing with my post-Microsoft life, because many of my colleagues could not understand why I'd quit while at 'the top of my game' to do something this 'weird,'" he says.

In 2000 he established the charitable organization Room to Read and began working full time to establish not just supplies of books, but libraries, schools, computer labs and a scholarship program for young girls.

The approach taken by Room to Read differs from that of many other charities. Rather than simply choosing a town and building new facilities, it seeks buy-in from the local community. Wood calls this the "challenge grant model."

For each project, the community must fund half the total cost, either through cash or materials and labor. This amount is then matched by Room to Read.

"The first school was about a six-hour walk from the nearest road," Wood said. "Fortunately, the parents in the village were so excited about the idea of a new school that they volunteered their labor, and carried the building supplies to the site.

"It's this kind of 'skin in the game' that we look for via our challenge grant model."

The skills Wood used to prosper during his career in the highly competitive technology sector have come in handy in his new endeavors. Shrewd management and a constant eye for detail have allowed Room to Read to keep overheads at less than 10 percent of total donations.

Those who do donate (money is coming from both corporate and private sources) have the satisfaction of seeing their gift make a measurable difference. A donation of $US5,000 is enough to build a new school in Nepal.

Despite his already considerable success, Wood has set some big goals for the future. By 2020, he wants Room to Read to have established 20,000 schools and libraries.

"If we stay focused and work hard, we can get there," he says. "We are already at 2,500 libraries and over 200 schools. This year we will open -- on average -- 20 new libraries and schools per week. We are trying to open outlets just as fast as Starbucks!"

Although Wood acknowledges that not everyone can throw in their job and tackle such issues full time, he believes everyone can contribute in some way.

"Some people should follow this path, but it's certainly not for everyone," he says. "I'd at least recommend that everyone spend time thinking about their passions, and then ask if the way they spend over half their waking hours is in alignment."

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