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May 17, 2010 / compassioninpolitics

Review of “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” by John Wood

Lessons from “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur’s Odyssey to Educate the World’s Children” by John Wood founder of Room to Read

Here are the four core takeaways from John Wood’s book “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World”:

1) Rabidly data and numbers driven
2) Big harry audacious goals (BHAGs)
3) Scale
4) A combination of traditional grant writing and guerrilla-style fund raising

Overall “Leaving Microsoft” is a story which details the original idea, launch, and large scale growth of “Room to Read” The lessons I learned from the book break down into 15 key principles for launching, running, and growing a non profit or social enterprise like Room to Read:

1) Listening/Feedback- Conducted interviews to find out if there is a problem (technically he only conducted one I believe–with an expert) He also drew on his personal observations from the field.
2) Start Small/Organization Size-Don’t worry about starting from small beginnings. John started Room to Read in Nepal–now its in almost a dozen countries. It serves as a prototype to know if you should scale your organization bigger and what aspects of your organization you should scale the most.
3) Mission and values—Got very clear on them. Be consistent and passionate in their promotion.
4) Scaling Your Organization: Room to Read is a fantastic case study on scale. (Early on it doubles in size about every year in terms of fundraising and
5) Community organizing and fundraising:—find someone who is passionate about the organization and the mission to grow your fundraising base. Additionally, Positioned the ask as part of a conversation (particularly a politically and culturally relevant narrative).
6) Donor base—knew exactly which donors he wanted the organization to pursue. Also leveraged donor matching several times during the organization’s history.
7) Data driven leadership-very specific about the core metrics which drive the organization and its mission.
8] Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs)—Johns big vision for expansion of the organization helped them scale. Helped them fundraise. There is a definite sense in which numbers were often attached to these goals.
9) Passion and Persistence). His fundraising batting average may leave him only hitting 1 in 10 or 1 in 20.
10) Shaping Your Narrative. Connection to the past as part of the organizations narrative. Used Carnegie as the model he was following. Attached himself to an icon of the past which resonated with American givers. It was a “proven” model–its something “tangible” to look to.
11) Authenticity, Ethics and Answering objections. John was very honest about what the organization did. He didn’t shy from being honest in saying—we can’t solve everything—we don’t handle the entire.
12) This isn’t awareness building. Fundraising is 24/7. Sure, it raises awareness—but John regularly seems to have a call to action (whatever it might be…for funds or resources or whatever). I think the data story helps prove this money will be accountable and useful.
13) Targeting Populations and Communities—I’m curious what method they used for each expansion. It seems in one case they might have used a big donors suggestion to go to India…in another they went to where the problem was the greatest. It seems like they have a specific reason for each expansion—which enhances the story.
14) Story telling. You are opening up a world your donor base has rarely seen. John also used visual storytelling in his presentations and books to enhance credibility, story, and persuasion.
15) Email Fundraising. Have a great sig file on your. Johns sig file for his email was very clear about mission and data (you’ll have to check the book for the sig file. Stories from the field can really drive your fundraising. He used an analysis of need by his employee (with some edits) to serve as the communication document to help fund the next stage of his organization.

The Knowledge @ Emory resource provides an excellent analysis of the approach Wood uses and lays out in “Leaving Microsoft to Save the World“:

Wood devotes much of his book to explaining how he has modeled Room to Read on key features of Microsoft’s corporate culture. Noting that most nonprofits lack a hardline approach to managing costs and leveraging outcomes, Wood offers Room to Read as an example of how a well-run NGO should raise money, market its work and maximize results.

He is especially intent on data-driven accountability. For Wood, a successful nonprofit must answer to donors, who deserve to know where their money goes. He is careful to publicize Room to Read’s results continuously: Even his email signature file documents how many schools have been built, how many libraries have been established, how many books have been donated, and how many girls have received long-term scholarships to allow them to stay in school.

A former graduate student at NYU however writes the following critique of “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World”:

Yet there is little, if any, mention of exactly how Room to Read is able to build schools in developing countries. There is little mention of how Room to Read schools work. How do they teach reading? Do they focus on other academic skills? Is there religious teaching? Emblematic in Wood’s story is the problem which faces so many nonprofit managers: how to raise money. This book is particularly valuable to those interested in fundraising because the majority of the book does focus on how the money is raised for Room to Read. Wood’s experience with foundations and face-to-face fundraising is insightful, especially given his marketing experience at Microsoft.

What emerges through the course of the book is a portrait of an individual committed to making the world better through his own unique talents. John Wood has been able to build libraries and schools and provide student with scholarships through effectively communicating to potential donors. Implicit in his book is the dilemma that faces much of the nonprofit community: More time is spent fundraising than on programmatic design. Changing the prospects of the individuals with the lowest incomes in the world will often depend on the sheer will, talent, and dedication of the John Woods of the world.

I think the critique is a little unfair (although not entirely so) given what I’ve outlined above. However, it is on point by pointing to the challenges of running a nonprofit organziation and by pointing out that Wood’s book is not grounded in the programs included (much of that detail I believe can be found on the Room to Read website).

John Wood’s vision of expansion is not unlike the 10 in 10 strategy pursued by my old church NCC. He had a vision to expand the reach of NCC—and to grow by leaps and bounds over the next decade. This type of expansion is exciting, challenging, and can potentially really have a tangible impact in the community and beyond.

You can learn more about Room to Read at their website. You can also read about them in Johns book and Fast Company magazine. If you are interesting in scaling your social enterprise—especially if you are going to be reliant on fundraising or building awareness his model of fundraising is helpful. (other organizations have certainly used this). On a side note–their website looks like best practices of web design and communications design as it directs the users eye to relevant info.

***Note John Wood did not use the word Big hairy audacious goals–only big goals or audacious goals I believe. Thats a nod to Jim Collins professor at Stanford and author of the business best seller Good to Great.

Other Great Books on Social Enterprise and Change:

There are many books on these subjects–however the ones which are narrative driven are far less frequent. Most are more strategy/tactics driven. Three other authors come immediately to mind:

Jaqueline Novogratz who founded the Acumen Fund in “Blue Sweater
Mohomed Yunus who founded the Gramean Bank in “Banker to the Poor
Paul Polak who founded Design for the Other 90 Percent and International Development Enterprises in “Out of Poverty

In terms of charting a career course in social change in the early stages–I think “Life Entrepreneurs” is quite good. Its about finding a career with meaning–including content from interviews with various social entrepreneurs. Both of the authors are educational social entrepreneurs.

One Comment

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  1. compassioninpolitics / May 17 2010 8:56 pm

    You can pick up “Leaving Microsoft” for between $5 and $12 dollars on Amazon. (actually I believe $15 with shipping–unless you get books totaling $25 and get slow shipping)

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