Room to Read: Bigger than Carnegie, Faster than Starbucks!

Room to Read: a review

The recent Marketing Society Inspirational Dinner hosted in Hong Kong was hugely enjoyable and the small group of marketers gathered were able to savor an intimate and informal evening with Room to Read founder John Wood. With passionate storytelling, searching questions and lively discussion over dinner, it was a fantastic event.

John’s story is a compelling one. His journey from seeing an empty library in a small village whilst trekking in Nepal back in the late 1990s to founding and driving the Room to Read charity which has now benefited over 10 million children worldwide is a truly amazing achievement. John’s passion to bring education and potential to under-privileged kids across the globe through books, schools and libraries has developed the Room to Read organization into a phenomenal success. Room to Read now operates in 10 countries and helps develop the education process from start to finish meaning that they play the roles of publisher, trainer & builder as well as many more, ensuring simple goals are met such as kids having children’s books to read in their own local language, having 9,232 more teachers & librarians trained to help children learn and constructing thousands of schools and libraries to create a safe environment for children to gain access to books and literature.

Whilst this fantastic work seems out of the realm of most day-to-day marketers, there were a few key lessons learned and pearls of wisdom from the Room to Read story and John’s amazing experiences that would be beneficial for all:

  • Branding is important: Your customers and the consumers you’re trying to market to cannot read your mind! In the charity sector, many organizations have acronyms, merged titles or are named after a founder or specific benefactor which leave many with little clue of what those organizations actually do. With Room to Read this is certainly not the case. From the name to the logo, even down to minute details such as the picture on the back of staff’s business cards, it’s easy to understand what Room to Read does, their purpose and the goals they are trying to achieve. This simplicity and clarity that runs throughout the brand makes it easy to then communicate your message to consumers, stakeholders or potential benefactors.
  • Transparency works best: Showing those who contribute & donate where their money goes has been a key factor in Room to Read’s success. It generates a closer engagement between contributors and the charity and keeps the organization accountable and focused on their purpose and their key goals. Proof of this comes in Room to Read’s excellent record at ensuring funds go directly to the charitable projects rather than administration or overhead costs. They proudly have a sector high of 83% of all funding being dedicated directly to their projects.
  • Know what you want from your data: Of course data is all the rage at the moment and with Room to Read it’s no different.  However, Room to Read have very clear ideas of what they want their data to tell them. Statistics such as drop-out rates of their Girl’s Education program or tracking how many words-per-minute children in each country can read allows for clear comparisons that generate key insights and drive optimization. For those marketers who don’t even know how many sales they have in each market or their customer retention rates for every product they have, this is a great lesson in using data to improve performance. Check out the dashboard on their website for inspiration!


  • Bigger Than Carnegie, Faster than Starbucks!: In their first decade, Room to Read built more libraries than Starbucks opened coffee shops in their first 10 years of existence. With over 18,000 libraries now funded by Room to Read they have dwarfed even Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic achievements of the late 19th century! Growth at scale is possible for everyone!
  • The Importance of Partnerships: One vital part of Room to Read’s success is their engagement and collaboration with partners from many different fields supporting them in many different ways – not simply cash donations. Partners have combined to provide free hotel rooms, donated Air Miles & provided luxury experiences that can be auctioned off. This network has helped enormously, not forgetting a round trip to Seattle for lunch with Melinda Gates that resulted in the foundation of Room to Reads’ data gathering and reporting system! A great lesson in how thinking differently and working together can generate amazing results in the modern marketing arena.

Of course, John and Room to Read’s work continues, helping almost one million children every year and they have the bold goal of investing in the lives of 15 million children by 2020 – an amazing target that we can all get behind!

To help continue Room to Read’s amazing story, please visit their website and donate – as they say “We Believe that World Change Starts with Educated Children”.

This article was written by Duncan Bell, Strategist at Havas Media. Connect with him [email protected] @Dunkb12