Room to Read’s John Wood: "GSD" on a massive scale

Room to Read’s John Wood: "GSD" on a massive scale

John Wood is the master of GSD.


Getting (Stuff) Done.

John Wood is the founder of of Room to Read, a non-profit that builds schools and libraries around Africa and Asia. Prior to founding the organization in 2000, he had been a senior marketing executive with Microsoft.

In the ensuing 14 years, Wood has gotten an astounding amount of (stuff) done. Among Room to Read’s astounding accomplishments are:

  • Over 1675 schools opened

  • Over 15000 libraries opened

  • 13 million books donated to kids

  • 7.8 million kids have access to schools built by Room to Read

  • 23,000 girls are currently on long-term scholarship and 96 percent of them have moved up to the next grade.

  • 70 percent have gone on to university or technical training

  • Room to Read has already produced 875 original titles in the languages of the countries where the schools and libraries are located. That number is expected to top 1000 by the end of 2003.

How did all of this start?

While still working for Microsoft, Wood went to Nepal to get away from emails, Monday morning management meetings, and he says (semi-jokingly) to get away from Steve Ballmer.

This vacation from work turned into a passion and obsession when the trek took his group to a small, dilapidated schoolhouse.

While it was encouraging to see hundreds of children at the school all anxious to get an education, it was extremely disheartening to see the conditions. The students were crammed into classrooms, with 80 students shoehorned into space designed for 20. The school’s “library” had only a handful of books.

As Wood was leaving the school, the headmaster left Wood with a simple sentence that would change Wood’s life forever.

“Perhaps you sir will come back here with books.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Wood recounted this story, recently, as a keynote speaker at the Public Relations Society of America’s 2013 annual International Conference.

Wood said positive public relations has been key to the organization’s fundraising efforts. While Room to Read has gotten a great deal of press, it took several years to get the ball rolling.

“I had a lot of frustrations early,” Wood said. “The strategy we had early was to use the “leaving Microsoft” story in a very, very big way. I was the guy had given it all up. Everyone has those fantasies about chucking their day job and going off and doing something they are more passionate about.”

He originally pitched a number of tech publications and online outlets, but they weren’t terribly interested because Room to Read was providing very low-tech solutions to the problem of education.

The breakthrough came in the form of a 2002 article in Fast Company.

“The Fast Company article was such a breakthrough,” he recalled. “We were averaging about 10 emails a day before the article. All of a sudden we got like 300 emails within three days of the magazine hitting the newsstands.

“At that time (2003), Fast Company was the hot magazine. It was like the gift that keeps on giving.”

The Fast Company article was followed by a column by Nick Kristof in The New York Times. That column resulted in over $500,000 in donations.

An appearance on Oprah brought so much attention that all eight of’s servers crashed. When they were back up, $3 million poured in.

Wood has been very careful about how he presents his story. Though his work is done in many of the poorest regions in the world, his messaging is always positive.

“We try to tell a story about the results, because people are inspired by results,” he said. “We tell very positive stories. So many organizations that go into the developing world you see a picture of a child dressed in rags, covered with flies and it is very guilt based marketing.

“We think these kids have an inherent dignity. Every picture we show the kids are smiling. It’s a very hopeful picture. The reason why we get so many public speaking opportunities is because our stories speak to the heart, but also speak to the head. You need both of those things.”

Jon Gelberg is a long-time communications specialist. Gelberg covers the public relations industry, social media, content marketing, all aspects of online marketing and most anything that has to do with getting your message across. Follow him on Twitter or check out his website.

Photos: Room to Read logo, courtesy of Room to Read, John Wood headshot, courtesy of Twitter

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