What entrepreneurs, NGOs and corporations can learn from each other
Room to Read – an NGO focused on eradicating illiteracy – was set up by former Microsoft executive John Wood. Credit Suisse has partnered with Room to Read for more than 10 years, drawn to the familiar entrepreneurial spirit and the desire to make a difference.
John Wood was Microsoft's Director of Business Development for Greater China when he took a backpacking trip to Nepal. Little did he know, this trip would transform both his life and that of many others.
While in the Himalayas, John met a Nepalese headmaster who invited him to visit his school in a nearby village. There, John saw the harsh reality confronting not only that village, but millions of Nepalese children – a ramshackle schoolroom and a dramatic shortage of books.
That trip opened John's eyes to the harshness of the lottery of life. "Where you are born, to whom you are born, is the single most determinant factor in your life and it is totally random," John told a packed room of Credit Suisse employees in Zurich during a lunch-time event. A parting statement to John by the school's headmaster changed John's life forever: "Perhaps, Sir, you will someday come back with books."
John took this remark seriously and began his philanthropy journey. By the end of 1999, he had quit his executive position with Microsoft and began to set up Room to Read. The aim was to address head-on the problems faced by 786 million people across the globe who lack basic literacy skills, two thirds of whom are girls – in other words, to help the kids who had lost the lottery of life.
At Credit Suisse, John spoke about the similarities between being a social entrepreneur and being a business entrepreneur and emphasized how his entrepreneurial spirit alongside his corporate background were at the core of developing Room to Read into one of the world's fastest-growing and most successful NGOs. He explained that an entrepreneur, whether social or more "traditional", is someone who spots a need, a "vacuum" and is tenaciously determined to fill it.
Since Room to Read's modest origins in 2000, where it started by bringing donated books to rural communities in Nepal, John has raised over USD 450 million to develop it to be one of the fastest-growing nonprofits in history. Today, Room to Read is a global organization dedicated to promoting and enabling education through "programs focused on literacy and gender equality in education. It achieves this by setting up school libraries, building schools, publishing local-language children's books, training teachers in literacy pedagogy and supporting girls to complete secondary school with the life skills necessary to succeed in school and beyond".
Many NGOs think that small is good, but you cannot accomplish much on a small scale
According to John, NGOs must emulate the best practices of businesses, as scale and professionalism are key for charities and businesses alike.
"Many NGOs think that small is good, but you cannot accomplish much on a small scale," says John, adding that with Room to Read "the co-founders and I wanted to take a business approach. We have a strategic dash board. This is not sexy but necessary. We treat Room to Read like a business."
Entrepreneurism too, John says, was crucial to running a successful organization – whether social or for profit. "NGOs need the characteristics of an entrepreneur, someone who clings onto a goal, like a dog to a toy," he said grinning, “and those working as social entrepreneurs are particularly passionate about what they do. That is something that businesses and corporations can learn from us NGOs.".
The entrepreneurial spirit which has driven the success of Room to Read has also found the perfect partner in Credit Suisse's entrepreneurial DNA.
The partnership last year celebrated its 10th anniversary. So far, thanks to Credit Suisse, approximately 120,000 children have benefited from Room to Read's support.
Employee engagement, microfinance and education are the three pillars of Credit Suisse's corporate citizenship. Room to Read is one of Credit Suisse's key partners in education. Credit Suisse's engagement with it is threefold: financial support, in-kind support and global (employee) engagement (through employee volunteering). In addition to grants for Room to Read programs, Credit Suisse has donated free office space for a small staff of Room to Read fundraisers in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney, now totaling more than nine desk spaces. This enables Room to Read to invest more of its funding directly into programs rather than in internal infrastructure. Through the Global Citizens Program, selected employees have the opportunity to work with Room to Read on a variety of assignments in various countries where the NGO operates, providing capacity-building on a broad range of topics such as administration systems, project management, financial forecasting and social impact investing. And locally, in the cities where they live, many Credit Suisse employees and senior managers are active in Room to Read's volunteer chapters, raising awareness for global education through community based events.