Books and bold decisions
A quarter of girls in India – nearly 1.5 million young people – get married before they are 18. Kamla was set to be one of them. Until she went on hunger strike to show her parents how desperate she was to take a different path.
Kamla was just 15 years-old when she was informed of her impending marriage. After a three-day hunger strike, Kamla appealed to her Room to Read mentor for advice. With her mentor’s support, she was able to negotiate with her father to stay on her path to achieving an education and not to pursue the arranged marriage.
Kamla finished secondary school, became a nursery school teacher and went on to receive a Gandhi Fellowship.
“She is one of thousands of girls that we’re working with, but she is also reflective of my own life,” says Dr Geetha Murali, Room to Read’s CEO. “I came from a family where child marriage was common – my grandmothers were married at a very young age. It feels like in a single generation we’re seeing entire families completely alter the trajectories of their lives, and I think that’s pretty phenomenal.”
Today, Kamla’s parents are fully supportive of her career, and she is an inspiration to her local community. She was the first girl in her village to become a nursery school teacher. Now there are seven. Kamla has created a path for herself and others to follow.
India is a special country for Room to Read, which has 600 staff on the ground there. It is where its mission to eliminate child illiteracy and improve gender equality in education is crucial, and is the country that embodies the scale of the organization’s operations, ambition, and challenges.
“Room to Read started with a pretty simple ambition of bringing books to kids who didn’t have them,” says Murali. “But over time, we’ve evolved into an organization that has ambitious goals of eradicating illiteracy – particularly childhood illiteracy around the world and gender inequality in education. And India is going to contribute the most toward illiteracy statistics if we don’t do something about it.”
From the ground up
Room to Read seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in low-income communities by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Working in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations and governments, it develops literacy skills and the habit of reading among primary school children, and supports girls to complete secondary school with the life skills they need to succeed in both school and beyond.
According to Murali, the evolution of Room to Read’s mission in India and beyond can be partly attributed to its roots in Silicon Valley. Its founder, John Wood, left Microsoft to set it up, and the organization’s early funding came from Silicon Valley luminaries such as eBay’s Jeff Skoll. Now, it uses data from 3,500 sites across countries in Asia and Africa to refine its programs and constantly ask questions about impact and outcomes. “At our core,” says Murali, “we are a technical organization that implements on the ground.”
Room to Read’s programs have been hugely successful: 13.1 million children have benefitted from its Literacy Program as of 2017, and it has distributed 24 million books and trains 10,000 teachers a year. To date, Room to Read's Girls' Education Program has supported over 56,000 girls in nine countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia).
But that is no longer enough. In future, its success will be defined differently, with Room to Read looking to assert its influence at national levels and be in a position to integrate its best practice into government education systems.
“We really are striving for system-level change,” says Murali. “It’s no longer just about each incremental new school that we’re working in, but about whether we see a path to actually solving these problems in our lifetime.”
This strategy varies from country to country. In Vietnam, for instance, there is an initiative to nationalize school libraries that will be based on the Room to Read model. The organization is working with the country’s district authorities to agree which of the libraries will be partnership libraries, whereby the government puts in money alongside Room to Read. In this cost share arrangement, the government will support the libraries on its own and Room to Read will provide demonstration schools.
In South Africa, meanwhile, Room to Read has worked with the World Bank to help establish guidelines around the production of high-quality children’s storybooks, and is working with education procurement and local publishers to make quality reading materials more accessible.
“What we’re trying to do is shake up the entire system in a way that’s cost effective and shows governments that if they just spend the resources they have more efficiently and in a more focused way, they can get better learning outcomes for their children,” says Murali.
An unusual funding model and a distinctive brand
Room to Read’s funding model is atypical: it is 97% privately funded and not beholden to large bilateral funding and long-term contracts. This gives it the flexibility to alter its program inputs quickly according to the data it receives directly from schools and staff.
Books are more than binary tools to entertain or educate. They rewire our brain for emotional intelligence and allow us to empathize, offering a view outside ourselves. They give you the ability to think beyond what you’ve experienced within your own community.
“We want to retain a level of flexibility in our programming, and I think the only way for us to do that is to see if we can push private fundraising to its extreme,” says Murali. “Because we grew out of individual fundraising and working with people one on one to get significant investment, when we started to grow our fundraising we built on those core competencies.”
That push has led to a multi-currency, peer-to-peer crowdfunding system and a chapter network globally, where 10,000+ volunteers run events, fundraise and help keep overheads low.
Room to Read’s fundraising success comes from a combination of its clear purpose and focus, and the strength of its brand.
“We don't bleed into a lot of different areas, even within education. We're focused on two critical milestones in children's schooling: early-grade literacy for primary school and secondary school education for girls – that’s all we do,” says Murali. “We’re one of very few education organizations that implements its own programs at scale, with 1,600 staff around the world. The unity of the brand and the brand voice is incredibly important in that context. All of our staff are able to explain our programs in the same way. We’re all very clear on what we’re doing with our budget every year.”
No long-term benefits, no investment
Room to Read’s deployment of technology on the ground, despite its Silicon Valley roots, has not been as clear cut. “Like many other organizations, we did try out providing computers in schools around the world,” says Murali. “But there wasn’t a really clear sense of what those initiatives were providing to the children in terms of long-term outcomes, so we shut it down.”
Instead, the organization fell back on a typically pragmatic, evidence-based approach: “We decided to take a step back and look at how technology can play a role to help us be a better organization and run a more efficient organization,” says Murali.
Again, it is all about that commitment to scaling up. “We won’t invest if we don’t see a path to scale,” Murali adds. “We have to use native technologies and technologies that are available on the market in the countries where we work.”
So Room to Read’s plan for the next five years is to phase in technology solutions that align with mobile penetration in different markets. Even where there is no penetration, it will use local technologies – SD cards or USB sticks, for instance – to distribute content and training to its partners.
“Can we use cellphones that teachers might already have,” asks Murali. “Instead of trying to have a hardware solution that is external to the local environment?”
Future challenges: Three priorities
Room to Read’s focus now is to systematically demonstrate its cost effectiveness to governments through cost-benefit analyses and returns on investment. That means doing the groundwork and benchmarking against the status quo. “We’re going through an exercise with our research monitoring and evaluation team to look at government budgets around the world,” says Murali. “How much is really being spent? How does that compare to our programs?”
The second priority is to plug gaps in educational materials: there are a number of languages that are underrepresented in children’s book publishing. But Room to Read knows it can solve that problem quickly: “We’re working with Google.org right now to digitize our content,” explains Murali. “We’re starting in Indonesia with Bahasa Indonesia just as a test case, but the base code will allow for all of our languages – we’ve published in 35 languages – to come online. It will be the first ever platform where all the books are approved by government, leveled, and curated, so that any partner – anywhere in the world – will be able to access it and know that it’s government approved in that country.”
The third priority is Boys. Room to Read is thinking very carefully about what type of curriculum boys need to foster a healthy gender dynamic, enable a shift in the community around the value of education, and ensure that they’re also getting the life skills they need to succeed after school. The organization’s gender equality work is starting to look more at the importance of boys as stakeholders in that process.
Analog + digital: The Room to Read recipe for literacy
Not many organizations bring together tech know-how, a business mindset and non-profit work in the developing world, but Room to Read is showing how focus can have far-reaching effects.
More and more children like Kamla are benefitting from the organization’s mentoring, libraries and educational materials, and are changing the course of their lives. Room to Read, meanwhile, is using data techniques to refine a long-term, evidence-based approach that is proving to be a sustainable way to drive down illiteracy.
“People trust us, because when we say we’ll reach 10 million children by 2015 we do it,” says Murali. “When we say we’ll reach 15 million children by 2020, we not only do it – we exceed it. As CEO, I want to make sure we keep setting ambitious targets and that we also achieve them.”
Data-based decision making
Transparency and numbers matter to Murali more than most. “In a former life I was a statistician,” she says. “So I’m somewhat obsessed with data. When used effectively, it can help you make some very smart decisions.”
Room to Read collects local data from schools and its mentors, and bases its decisions on a set of global indicators. These include the number of books that are checked out of libraries, the hours of training that teachers are receiving, and outcomes such as words children are reading per minute, and the number of questions they can answer correctly.
In girls’ education, the organization is evolving its program from a scholarship model to one that is much more holistic. “We are working with girls to help them develop the competencies they need to demonstrate their ability to make key life decisions,” says Murali. “Things like self-confidence and negotiation skills.”
Away from its ground-level activities, meanwhile, Room to Read’s smart use of data extends to its use of customer relationship management to gain a clearer view of donor reporting and the progress of projects associated with particular investors.