Using Community Libraries to Create Social Change in Rural South Asia

READ Global, an international non-profit that uses community libraries as a platform for creating social change in rural villages throughout India, Bhutan and Nepal, is the winner of the second annual Barry & Marie Lipman Family Prize awarded to an organization that is creating social impact through leadership and innovation. Wharton administers the prize on behalf of the University of Pennsylvania. Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, recently interviewed Tina Sciabica, executive director of READ Global. The organization, which was chosen from more than 115 entrants worldwide, received $100,000 at an awards ceremony at Wharton.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Michael Useem: Tina, welcome to Wharton. Good to have you here.

Tina Sciabica: Good to be here.

Useem: You’re the executive director of READ Global. You have operations throughout India, Bhutan and Nepal to bring the resources of reading and information access to those who ordinarily would just never have them. Describe in a couple words how you operate, what you do and how big an impact you have.

Sciabica: We actually work in 67 different villages right now. We started in Nepal about 21 years ago, and we use community libraries as a platform for creating social change. So we partner with the village to bring education, enterprise and community development to each community and then transform that community as a result.

Useem: In terms of the distinctive edge that sets you apart from other initiatives in the social impact field, what makes you different?

Sciabica: I think there are two things that really make the READ model distinct and unique. One is sustainability, and when I talk about sustainability, I mean financial sustainability. So with every READ Center that we launch, we start a sustaining enterprise, a for-profit business that can generate revenue that will meet the operating expenses of the center for years to come. The community knows from the very beginning that they have a way to actually sustain this moving forward. And with that, they’re very welcoming of the idea.

This leads to the second point, which is that it is community initiated and community owned and managed. So the community is involved from day one. They have to initiate the request. We don’t go to communities and tell them, “You need a READ Center.” It’s really them. They decide, and then they have to come up with a plan, a proposal, and they’re involved every step of the way so that a sense of ownership and co-investment is there from day one, and it just grows and grows. That’s what really leads to the success of the model.

Useem: You ask communities to put up a little cash to go with all the above. Because you’re in rural Nepal, for example, where there is almost no cash, it is very, very poor. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. How do you get villagers to put some of their very scarce cash into this kind of an initiative?

Sciabica: You might actually be surprised. You’re right. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, but we’ve actually seen communities run their own fundraising campaigns because they want the center that much. They will go door to door, and every single villager will actually contribute something, even if it’s just a rupee or a handful of rice that can then be sold at market. The beauty of this is that everyone then knows the center belongs to the [entire] community. It doesn’t belong to the wealthy people who helped fund it. It belongs to everyone.

That’s been a really important part of our model from day one. We actually have some communities that have raised more than half of the funds. We require a 10% to 15% co-investment. But there have been many communities that have raised far beyond that, and even continue to raise money after the center is open. They want to build upon it and expand what’s happening there.

Useem: How do communities learn about you? How do you market? How do you become known to villagers such that they do want to step forward, call you in, put some money up to make it happen?

Sciabica: We’ve been working in Nepal for 21 years. The READ brand there is very well known. Our libraries are all over the country. We get so many requests every year that we can’t actually handle all of them. In a place where we’ve been working for that long, it’s easier to have brand recognition. In places like Bhutan and India, where we’ve been working less than six years in both countries, we do a lot of awareness building — visiting with communities, educating them about the model, explaining what’s required. Then really it’s up to them once they know to make that request. But we have to do a bit of education. They’re not just going to come to us asking for a READ Center unless they learn what is involved and what it’s going to take from them.

Useem: If other social impact groups that are looking to go into that region, or elsewhere for that matter, come to you and ask for the lessons learned about how to start up and sustain this kind of an operation, what are a couple of the enduring ideas that have been vital that you think other organizations could learn from?

Sciabica: I think it’s what we have talked about. It’s community ownership, community engagement from the very beginning, not telling communities what it is they need, but actually working with them to figure out what are the assets that already exist in the community, what are the most urgent needs that the community is facing, and how can a READ Center meet those needs.

I think a lot of organizations have really great intentions, and they have models that could be replicated. But if the community doesn’t buy in from the very beginning, I think it’s really difficult to achieve success. That’s something that READ has done particularly well. We give the communities time to adjust to the idea. If they’re not completely committed right away, we don’t rush things. We wait until they are completely committed because we know that without that sense of commitment, it’s not going to succeed. That becomes challenging, especially in this day and age…. There’s now a lot of focus on social impact; [funding organizations] want to see quick scale, quick results. That’s challenging, because if you want a community to take true ownership, you don’t go in and get it done in six months. You really need to make sure you give the community time to understand, to come together, to make sure there’s no conflict around the idea. That’s something that the READ teams have really mastered. I think there are probably other organizations that do something similar, but I think there are probably some that would have more success if they would do more of the mobilizing at the very beginning rather than after they have started a project.

Useem: It’s bottoms up, grassroots driven, customer-centric. You’ve been at this as executive director for three years now. The organization goes back more than 20 years. You’re reaching some two million recipients now with your services. What’s next? Thinking out a couple years, maybe even five, how many people do you hope to reach? Do you look to go into other countries? Will your model change?

Sciabica: We definitely want to go into new countries. So I’d say for the next year or two, we’re really focusing on deepening our impact in the countries that we’re currently operating in. We’re looking to do a lot more with technology — providing free Internet access at the READ Centers, but also looking at ways that we can use mobile technologies to reach people where they are, because we work in so many rural villages where people farm, [which means] they need to spend most of their day farming. They may not be able to get to the READ Center, even if it’s close by. So how do we get information to them on their mobile phone that is really, truly going to serve their most critical needs? [We also are] looking at making sure that the countries we’re in now, Bhutan, India and Nepal, can sustain their own operating budgets within the next few years so that READ Global as an organization can look at replicating the model around the world.

Useem: Tina, you began your career as a commercial litigator, and for three years you’ve been at the top of this organization. A couple of questions about you: In your visits to some of the operations, some of the settings, some of the resource centers and remote parts of Nepal, what has been most striking or maybe even most surprising to you as you have gone into the villages, met some of the recipients, seen your operations in action?

Sciabica: I think what’s been life-changing and inspiring is how much communities can do for themselves. There’s often a sense of people coming from the western, developed world [thinking] we have a lot of resources and we might have a lot of answers. I actually think that in rural villages, they have the answers; they just need to be given a certain amount of resources and the opportunity to unleash those ideas and their full potential. Because we have seen truly amazing things happening with the communities, especially over time as they take more ownership and more responsibility for deciding what programs and services should be provided through the READ Center.

So I think it’s understanding that most people have it in them to [create] a better future for themselves. They just need to get past the most basic needs.

Once people can meet their most basic needs — and that might be earning a living so that they can feed their children, send their children to school — once they can do that, then anything else is possible. When I started at READ, I was a little frustrated because there are such high illiteracy rates in many of the communities that we work in. I thought, why are we going to put books and Internet access in these communities if people can’t read? How are they going to access these resources? And I now realize that we do a lot around livelihood skills training. Once they get past that point where they can actually earn a living and have some financial resources, then they can get to literacy and education and so many different areas. So that’s been a learning [experience] for me — that you can’t do everything all at once. You actually have to tackle the most urgent needs of a community and then you can get to things like education of the parents and making sure that they can keep their children in school. They actually have the ability to put the kids in school because they don’t need them working at home.

Useem: In a sense you touch the two ends of the earth. You have been to rural Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, where it can take days to reach a resource center by foot. You also have support from the Gates Foundation. Last time I looked, it had a $60 billion endowment, probably equal to the GDP of the entire country of Nepal or not too far off. In managing and working between the worlds of extreme poverty and development on the one hand, and the first world and the wealth that is required, the financial support that is required to make all this happen on the other hand, what have you learned about managing? What have you had to learn about leading in that very complex terrain that you travel?

Sciabica: I’ve learned a lot in the last three years. And you’re right. I’m working with very different audiences. But I think the most important thing, no matter whom you’re dealing with, is being able to communicate your vision clearly and the vision for the organization. As a leader, it took me a while to realize there are often times when I had a whole plan in my head and I wasn’t communicating it to the rest of the organization. It’s really important when people are working so hard to make something happen that they understand what direction we’re heading in as an organization. I didn’t always do that. And I probably still don’t always do that, but I understand the importance of it now for people to really understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, why we’re taking on new initiatives and what the end goal is with all of that.

Useem: You have received the 2013 Barry Lipman Prize for Social Innovation in a Social Impact Field. It’s a significant cash award. It recognizes you and all that you and your organization have done. Looking forward the next 12 months or so to what that recognition may do for you, just talk through a bit about the impact of this prize on your own thinking and your own operations.

Sciabica: I think for the organization as a whole, especially in Nepal where we’ve been working for so long — 21 years — having this sort of recognition is a game changer. We work really hard as an organization. The people overseas dedicate their lives to this work. They work under some pretty grueling circumstances, and they’re so passionate and so committed because they know that what they’re doing makes a difference. But then to have the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School give us this prize and acknowledge that, yes, this model is truly transformative and it’s something that can be scaled and replicated, it really gives us a sense of pride in the work that we’re doing. It just gives us that external validation that, yes, this really matters.

I think also the partnership with the students and the faculty is going to be a game changer, and it already is because they’re doing a case study right now. We have some challenges and opportunities as an organization. We’re really hoping to tackle those challenges together with the students and faculty to see if they can help bring some business thinking to the organization. We have a business angle already, but I think it’s always good to have experts from outside of the organization lend their expertise and bring some new ideas and really help us understand how we can make the organization even stronger.

Useem: Tina, we thank you for joining Knowledge@Wharton today.

Sciabica: Thank you for having me.

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